Name: Mike Ekstrom
DOB: August 30, 1983
Battling a slow start to Spring Training where his innings were limited and command issues in 2007, Ekstrom is trying to rediscover his old form.
April became his Spring Training and since these games counted, Ekstrom began trying to do too much – a trait that lasted through much of the season.
Instead of going back to the basics, the right-hander was overthrowing and his mechanics were getting out of whack. The natural downward movement on his pitches was flattening out and his ball was left up in the zone and getting hit hard.
"He had a disappointing year," former San Antonio and current Portland pitching coach Glenn Abbott said. "It was disappointing to Mike and the rest of us. We thought he would have a better year. He had command problems coming into the strike zone."
His idea of a good game is using his two-seam fastball that runs down and away from a right-hander to get ground ball outs and even using a cut fastball that drops down in the zone to get his fielders involved. The result a year ago was quick innings and an efficient pitching style.
This season, he still favored the two-seam fastball but had trouble spotting it up in all four quadrants. He would get behind in the count and Ekstrom has never been a pitcher who can blow the ball by the opposition.
It resulted in a career-high 49 extra base hits allowed on the season and affected him adversely on the mound. While he always remained poised, Ekstrom couldn't seem to eliminate the big inning.
Normally a quick starter that sets the tone with his two-seamer, Ekstrom's control problems began in the first inning and continued throughout his starts.
Elevated command as a ground ball pitcher is suicide. Where he had nearly a 2-to-1 ratio of ground outs-to-fly outs a year ago, Ekstrom was a quarter over even this year. Fly ball pitcher Cesar Ramos even eclipsed him in induced double play grounders.
The Portland native was simply hittable in Double-A San Antonio this year. He allowed 183 hits in 143.2 innings of work, posting a 1.60 WHIP.
Yet, in the biggest game of the year, manager Randy Ready called upon Ekstrom – a move that proved to be warranted. The right-hander toyed with the opposition over seven scoreless innings, taking a no-hitter into the seventh before two hits were amassed against him.
"Very fitting, we turned back the clock," former San Antonio and current Portland maanger Randy Ready said. "Mike was our Opening Day starter and picked up the first win of the season, and here he is pitching a big game, which ended being the final game of the Championship Series to win the Texas League. Mike came up big for us. He is a big time pitcher. I have had him pitch in the playoffs for me in the past.
"He did not have a great year, and I think if you ask Mike he will honestly tell you the same. The last six weeks he pitched very well. There was no question in my mind that he was going to get the opportunity to get the ball in the big game."
And the numbers might have been deceiving all year. Ekstrom posted a 3.46 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which ranked third in the Texas League – a measure of all the things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible, regardless of how well his fielders fielded.
"Ekstrom has very good poise – about as good as I have ever seen in the minor leagues," said Abbott. "He has a presence on the mound. He does not get excited and knows what he has to do.
"He rose to the occasion. He pitched well the final month of the season. He threw much better. He came out in the big game of the season and showed why we had confidence to put him out there."
The coaching staff never doubted for a second that Ekstrom would have the poise and command needed to accomplish the task.
To his credit, the Opening Day starter never doubted his ability. While his confidence certainly suffered, Ekstrom battled through the year and finally hit pay dirt over his last six starts, posting a 3.57 ERA. The common denominator in each of those starts – keeping the ball down and using the ground to create outs.
"(Mike) Ekstrom, who was our Pitcher of the Year, didn't walk into the Double-A level and carve it up, but the good signs are he knows where he is at, he knows what flaws need to be fixed, and when you look at his last four or five starts – they were better," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "That is what you are looking for. You are always looking for players to be better in August than they were in April."
His two-seamer runs in the high-80s and will touch 90-91 MPH while his four-seam fastball sits in the low-90s and has touched 91-93 MPH. He uses the four-seam fastball as a strikeout pitch ahead in the count, elevating it to get hitters chasing around their eyes.
But it is the two-seam fastball that sets up everything else. When he has command of the pitch in the lower quadrant of the zone, Ekstrom can expand the zone and get hitters chasing his slider – a true plus pitch. The slider often has hitters rolling over – but he has to be in the zone early in the count to setup the put-away pitch.
The changeup is a pitch he has been trying to improve but did not have as much luck with it, as he would have hoped this past season. Where he once used the circle change to keep hits off-balance, Ekstrom was never able to establish it as a go-to pitch and had to rely more on the fastball-slider combination.
Touted as having clean mechanics, Ekstrom wasn't as successful keeping his balance this year. His elbow would drop and his follow-through lacked full extension, hurting the movement of his pitches. Having changed to a more over the top delivery after the 2005 season, Ekstrom would occasionally drop the arm angle to his previous three-quarters ways.
The Point Loma-Nazarene product also fell into the lull of giving hitters too many good pitches to hit when he got ahead in the count; part of that was the command problems that plagued him and not trusting his stuff entirely.
"He comes after guys and is aggressive," said Abbott. "His command got him in trouble this year. He kept the ball up in the zone.
"The thing about Ekstrom, and all the guys we had, they didn't take it personal. They realized they just had to make better pitches. They didn't let it get them down. Ek was a great example. He never got down on himself. He was a true professional. He just kept on pitching and ended up pitching well at the end of the year."
"I like him as a fifth starter, reliever in the big leagues," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He has a good slider. He just had a rough year last year, but I think he will bounce back."
ETA: Ekstrom's ascension through the minor leagues hit a snag this year and he will likely repeat Double-A – what will be the third year he has spent time there. His ability to work down in the zone is the key to his success; without it, he becomes ordinary. He has to get back to his strength. His makeup says he will return to his previous form and it isn't that far from reaching San Diego. If he gets back to what led him to Double-A, he could be see a big league debut in 2009.
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