Miller finishes on high note

Right-hander Justin Miller finished his second full season by striking out 20 batters and allowing only one run over his final 13 innings. Lone Star Dugout interviews the 23-year-old relief prospect.

Reliever Justin Miller has posted strong numbers over his first two full professional seasons. In 76.2 innings––mostly coming with High-A Bakersfield––he has a 3.17 earned-run average.

Miller recently polished off a strong 2010 campaign with the Blaze, posting a 3.06 ERA in 32 appearances. He logged 47 innings, giving up 35 hits, walking 21, and striking out 52.

While the 23-year-old had solid overall results, he struggled with his command of the strike zone early in the season. Miller underwent a mechanical change in Spring Training but never felt completely comfortable with it.

Miller missed nearly all of July with elbow inflammation. Upon returning, he reverted to his old mechanics and began throwing strikes with more consistency.

The right-hander became a dominant force late in the season with Bakersfield, totaling 28 strikeouts against only five walks in 22.1 innings after the Cal League's All-Star break.

Miller's late success was highlighted in his September 3 outing against Stockton, in which he fanned seven batters in 2.1 hitless innings. He posted the following line over his last six appearances––13 innings, 8 hits, 1 run, 3 walks, 20 strikeouts.

Throughout both his collegiate and professional careers, Miller has never been particularly hittable, but he has run into trouble with high walk totals. The hurler attacks opposing batters with a 90-94 mph fastball and a hard slider. He also mixes in the occasional changeup and curveball to keep hitters off-balance.

A Bakersfield native, Miller has spent most of his professional career thus far with the hometown Blaze. He is also a product of Fresno State University, where he played a key role as a starting pitcher during the Bulldogs' magical 2008 national championship run.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with the reliever, who figures to be fighting for a spot in the Double-A Frisco bullpen next spring.

Jason Cole: I want to ask you about your season as a whole. What were your thoughts on how everything turned out?

Justin Miller: At the end, I felt like I finished up strong after coming off my rehab and everything.

Cole: What was the injury that had you out?

Miller: I was out for a month exactly pretty much. It was inflammation in my elbow. At first, we thought there might have been something wrong with my Tommy John tendon. But after doing MRI's and everything, we realized it was just swelling in the elbow.

Cole: And judging by the way you came back at the end, I'm assuming the rehab fixed the issue completely?

Miller: Yeah, it fixed it pretty well. Toward the end, it started flaring up a little bit. But we took care of it.

Cole: Tell me about the end. Your issue with walks seemed to go away late in the season. Was there an adjustment that helped fix it?

Miller: When I first talked to you, it was in the beginning of the season. And like I said, in Spring Training, we had a couple guys trying to basically put their hands on me and try to straighten out a couple things. It wasn't working that well. The walks were the biggest issue because of that.

After having a talk with Danny Clark and Dave Chavarria––the pitching coach in Bakersfield––we just pretty much went back to my old mechanics from college. The mechanics I was using before Spring Training––last year. I was just able to control the ball a lot more consistently.

Cole: What was that mechanical change?

Miller: During Spring Training, they tried to change my hands and change my foot alignment. I just went to how it was last year––setting lower and getting more in the rhythm of things. It's not coming over the top so much and kind of dropping down just a little bit more where my natural arm slot is.

Cole: And that's how you threw in college?

Miller: Yeah. Since junior college. When I went to junior college, coach broke me down all the way and gave me the mechanics I have now. That has been really helpful to me, to get back to that area.

Cole: Did you ever get into a comfort zone with those mechanics you were working with this spring?

Miller: Not really. I couldn't see it when I was throwing. I just wasn't the same person on the mound as I was last year. Last year, I just got on the mound and didn't really care who got in the box. I didn't try to take an approach to their weaknesses or anything like that––I pitched to my strengths. That's how I was last year, and I was able to get back into that.

Cole: You flashed the occasional curveball and changeup in Spring Training this season. Are you still using those at all?

Miller: Yeah. I started throwing a curveball in Extended Spring Training last year. One of the pitching coaches––Keith Comstock––got ahold of me and started telling me to throw a curveball. I've started to get away from it because, out of the ‘pen, it's hard enough to throw three pitches. So I just stick with that fastball-slider and if I need to, I'll use the changeup to lefties.

Cole: It seemed like you were picking up steam and improving every time out as you came back from the injury. How much confidence did you gain during that stretch?

Miller: I was mad at myself for having to sit out a month of the year. Last year, I had to sit out as well. I got injured during Spring Training. It was just kind of making me mad when I got injured again. I guess I took that out to the field and used the intensity out there. I pitched better that way, I guess.

Cole: You struck out seven batters in 2.1 innings in your second to last outing of the season. Tell me about that outing and what your stuff was like that day.

Miller: My stuff––it actually wasn't my best stuff. I'd consider myself effectively wild. The first inning I threw, I couldn't throw a fastball for a strike. So I started throwing sliders. Actually, my slider helped my fastball. Once I got the feel for my slider, it helped me get the feel for my fastball. The second inning that I went back out there, I was able to throw my fastball and my slider for strikes. It just helped even more because my fastball set-up my slider and my slider set-up my fastball.

Cole: At the end of the day, what area of your game did you feel progressed the most this season?

Miller: Most this season––from month one to the last month of the year, I think it was throwing in the strike zone more effectively. Just not walking as many people. I was just basically trying to pitch to contact.

Cole: As you go into the offseason and look forward to next year, what would you like to improve upon going forward?

Miller: Fastball command. I want to throw more fastballs for strikes and be around the zone more with my fastball. Also, I want to continue to develop my changeup.

Cole: What are you planning on doing to prepare for next season over this offseason?

Miller: I got with my trainers and everything. We're trying to basically put me on a program to help strengthen all the areas around my elbow. I don't want the injuries to flare up again. I want to keep up with that same workout during the season––something that can be consistent for me. Basically, I want to just put on more weight so I can have more muscle around the tendon area so it will keep me from getting injured and make me more durable. I want to put on another 10 or 15 pounds.

Cole: The Rangers recently signed their new PDC with Myrtle Beach. Since you are from Bakersfield, how nice is it to know that you got in that final year with the Blaze?

Miller: It was nice. It's nice to play in your hometown, but it also has a lot of distractions. If I do go back to High-A, I'm kind of glad that I'll be out of Bakersfield and on my own. I won't have as many distractions around me. But I also want to fight for a spot in Double-A as well.

Cole: In getting the opportunity to play in the Cal League, you were around areas with lots of Fresno State supporters. You were on that national title team in 2008. Have you run into many Bulldog fans along the way with Bakersfield?

Miller: Yeah, a lot of people come up to me and have me sign the book that was made for the College World Series team. I also run into teammates that played at my junior college and teammates that I played with at Fresno State. I run into those guys from that area. That's pretty cool.

Cole: Your national title run there at Fresno was probably the biggest underdog story in college baseball history. Can you take me through four-week run?

Miller: It was awesome. We didn't have any pressure put on us––that was the biggest thing. We were the underdog, so we didn't put any added pressure on ourselves. There was no pressure being put on us.

We weren't supposed to be there, so we were just out having fun and playing baseball the way it's supposed to be played. It was just having fun and not caring about anything. We were going out and taking on the big guys.

Cole: After flying under the radar all season, what was the sudden media attention like?

Miller: It was kind of cool. After games a couple guys would be pulled off to the side to go talk to the media. They'd be on TV and stuff like that. It was pretty cool. Even in Arizona, when we played Arizona State, there was a lot of media.

But that's the kind of team we were. Brandon Burke was getting interviewed after the game––he got the save––and we had this stupid game where you throw up a certain sign, and you've got to fall down because you're paralyzed. And he's doing an interview live with this guy––we're sitting there throwing up the signs––and he just drops during the interview. That's the kind of way it was. We were just a bunch of goofballs.

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