Ballard looks to keep hitters guessing

ROUND ROCK, TX - Oklahoma starting pitcher Mike Ballard was excellent on Wednesday night, as he held the Express to just two hits over five scoreless innings. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the left-hander after the game.

Mike Ballard toed the rubber for the first time in 11 days on Wednesday night and showed little sign of rust, as he helped the RedHawks cruise to a 5-0 victory over the Round Rock Express.

The left-hander needed 67 pitches to toss five scoreless innings. He held the Express to two hits while walking one and striking out one.

One factor in Ballard's success was his ability to consistently pound the lower half of the strike zone on both sides of the plate. The 24-year-old finished his outing with an impressive 11:3 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

While pitching with Double-A Frisco earlier this season, Ballard was able to quickly develop into one of the Texas League's most dominant pitchers after adding a cutter.

The pitch, which sits at about 82-83 mph, helped Ballard keep hitters from sitting on his 86-88 mph fastball. Already armed with above-average offspeed stuff in his curveball and changeup, Ballard had little trouble mastering the Double-A level after adding the cutter.

Not long after he arrived in Triple-A, the Virginia native decided it was time to give hitters another look. Ballard began toying with an 84-85 mph sinker that he learned from reliever and sinkerball specialist Wes Littleton. The hurler showed solid command of his new pitch on Wednesday night, getting a handful of ground balls with it.

Lone Star Dugout spoke with Ballard after he picked up his third win at the Triple-A level.

Jason Cole: Can you give me your thoughts on tonight's start?

Mike Ballard: I thought it went really well. I was excited to come off the DL. I'd had some time off. I felt like I threw the ball decent and guys were just making great plays behind me. I was able to get a lot of ground balls and just kind of let the defense work behind me.

Cole: You only threw five innings despite cruising out there. Were you on a pitch count tonight?

Ballard: Yeah. They told me before the game that it was going to be five innings or 80 pitches – whichever one came first.

Cole: After taking about 10 days off, did you feel your arm tire at all during the game?

Ballard: Maybe a tad bit there in the fifth – maybe started to tire a little bit. But not really. I was able to have some quick innings and kind of just kept things rolling.

Cole: How did you feel about your cutter tonight?

Ballard: Good. I think I almost hit [Ray] Sadler with one, so that wasn't too good. I didn't throw too many of them. I just started throwing a lot of sinkers recently. Wes Littleton kind of showed me a grip for one and we were playing around with it maybe like three weeks ago. I kind of do that a lot – maybe 2-0 or 2-1. If I'm throwing a fastball on the outer half, I'll just kind of try and sink it and maybe guys will roll over it. I had a lot of that happen tonight.

Cole: Tell me a little more about that sinker. Have you been throwing it in games much since you picked it up?

Ballard: No, I think I threw it in a game – I think it was a day game. It was probably 105 or 110 on the field and I was like, ‘I'm just going to try and throw some sinkers here so maybe they'll swing at the first pitch and just hit ground balls.' It kind of worked out then. But I haven't used it too much. I've just kind of used it at times that I kind of feel like I could definitely go for a ground ball.

Cole: How much have you been working on that in bullpen sessions?

Ballard: I'll throw like a couple here and there. I throw a lot on long-toss sessions and when I'm on flat ground. I've been kind of messing around with it.

Cole: I guess you're going to keep throwing your cutter even though you've got the sinker now as well?

Ballard: Yeah, why not? I figure the more the merrier. I didn't have to use too many cutters tonight, fortunately. I was able to keep my pitch count down with guys swinging early in the count, so I didn't have to throw too many cutters.

Cole: What is the velocity like on your cutter?

Ballard: I think it's like 81, 82, 83-ish. Somewhere in there.

Cole: What about the sinker? Do you know that yet?

Ballard: I think that one is more like 84 or 85-ish. Then the four-seamer has been about 88.

Cole: Was adding the sinker something that the Rangers were behind or was it completely your decision?

Ballard: It was just me and Wes one day. I think the only guy who maybe knows about it is Andy Hawkins, when he was here. I think it was a couple of days before he actually went up. We were kind of messing with it and he was like, ‘Yeah, I like it. It's something for you to definitely add and mess around with.'

Cole: How do you feel that adding those two pitches – the sinker and the cutter – has improved you this season?

Ballard: If I'm able to kind of locate it, having more pitches and being able to throw them all for strikes, I guess that gives me a little bit of an advantage out there. I guess it has the hitter guessing a little more up there. It can only make it tougher.

Cole: You got a few broken bats tonight. Were those on four-seam fastballs, sinkers, or cutters?

Ballard: I think all those were on four-seams. Tea bag [Taylor Teagarden] just called a great game back there and he was able to – I guess at the right time – go in on guys. I guess they just weren't ready for it.

Cole: You've had your ups-and-downs since you got promoted to Triple-A, but you obviously pitched extremely well tonight. What was the difference for you?

Ballard: Just attacking guys. Just going out there and getting ahead of hitters early. I had like two rough starts and with those, I think I was behind in counts. When I needed to make a pitch, it wouldn't quite be there or it would be a little elevated in the zone. Guys put some pretty good swings on them.

Cole: Did you feel it was more of a mental issue at first or was it more of a mechanical thing?

Ballard: I think it was probably more of a mental thing. Just kind of adjusting to the new situation and all that – the new league and the new hitters. I feel like I've always had that adjustment period whenever I've moved anywhere.

Cole: Being fairly new to Triple-A ball, what does a great start tonight do for you mentally?

Ballard: Just confidence. Going into the end of the year, you always want to definitely try and have something to build on going into the offseason. Maybe leave a good impression or a good ending note with the front office staff and all that. It's definitely a confidence builder and definitely something to kind of keep going.

Cole: Outside of that sinker, what have you been working on when you throw bullpen sessions with your new pitching coach, Keith Comstock?

Ballard: The main thing with me is just quality pitches down in the zone. I have a tendency at times where it will be on the right side of the plate or where I want it, but it will just be maybe five inches too high. It'll be mid-thigh level instead of down at the knees. I feel that's where I get hurt the most. Just working on keeping the ball quality and down through the zone.

Cole: Are you going to be pitching anywhere this offseason or will you be getting the full offseason to rest?

Ballard: No. I wanted to, but they kind of shot that down I guess with all the innings I'll throw. I don't really know what I'm at right now, but I guess with one more start left and then the playoffs, you never know. I think they kind of just wanted me to take a break and just be ready to go for next year.

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