Ballard happy with his role

ROUND ROCK, Texas - After beginning the season in the bullpen, Triple-A Oklahoma City left-hander Mike Ballard is in the starting rotation once again—for now. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the 25-year-old the day before he tossed a quality start against the Round Rock Express.

Left-hander Mike Ballard has never been regarded as a top prospect, but he has been one of the organization's most reliable pitchers up the ladder.

The 25-year-old came into his own with Double-A Frisco last season, and he is now pitching well with Triple-A Oklahoma City. The strike-throwing Virginia native's 5.14 ERA is not sparkling. But in 28 innings, he is limiting opposing hitters to a .259 average while walking just four and striking out 16.

Ballard has strong command of a four-seam fastball that generally sits between 86-88 mph, topping out around 90. He also mixes in a plus changeup and a big-breaking, upper-60s curveball that also rates above-average. Ballard began throwing a low-80s slider/cutter mix last season that has helped keep hitters from sitting on his fastball.

The 6-foot-2 hurler made his fourth start of the season on Monday in Round Rock. He surrendered three runs on five hits in 6.1 innings, walking none and striking out three.

Lone Star Dugout spoke with Ballard the day before his outing against the Express.

Jason Cole: Talk about your season here as a whole so far. How's it going?

Mike Ballard: Good, good. They had me start in the ‘pen. It took maybe a week to get used to it. I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed the uncertainty of not knowing if you were going to pitch this day or that day. It was a definite adrenaline rush, coming out of the ‘pen when they tell you to get up and stuff.

I moved into starting and it has been going alright. I took a little lump last time out—gave up a couple of home runs. It was pretty much three bad pitches and it led to six runs. But I'm doing good. I'm enjoying it.

Cole: When was the last time you were going out of the bullpen before this year?

Ballard: I made one appearance last year out of the ‘pen. It was after that fake call-up thing. I ended up throwing an inning out of the bullpen the next night down in Corpus. Then before that it was maybe the last week or two that I was in Spokane. They were a little worried about my innings, so they put me in the ‘pen.

Cole: Has there ever been a time during your career—high school, college, professional, or even little league—that you were a reliever?

Ballard: No. It's something new for me. It's something that I had to get adjusted to. But like I was saying, I really enjoyed it. I liked not having to save pitches. Say you had this guy set up on an 0-2 count, but it's the first inning, so you may not want to throw him a slider in the dirt or something like that. Maybe just stick with a fastball because you may need that pitch when you face him again in the fifth or sixth inning when you face him again with runners on. That was nice, not having to think that way and save pitches. You could just kind of go get them.

Cole: When did they tell you that you would be pitching in the bullpen?

Ballard: They told me towards the end of Spring Training. Scott Servais had mentioned something to me about it when I spoke with him this offseason. We talked about how I felt about going to the bullpen. I told him that I thought it would be cool. It would be something that I'd definitely try out. Anything to get to the big leagues. I was excited for it, and it really wasn't too big of a shocker when they told me. It was something I had heard could possibly happen.

Cole: Did they say your long term role is going to be in the bullpen?

Ballard: No. We never really talked long term or anything like that. I was willing to kind of do whatever it takes to get up to the big leagues because that's obviously where we all want to pitch.

Cole: Now that you're starting again, did they say that you would be a starter for any period of time?

Ballard: They didn't really tell me anything. We were in the clubhouse one day and TC [pitching coach Terry Clark] was like, ‘Ballard, you're going to start on Thursday.' That was kind of how I found out. I threw great that night. I thought it was going to be just a spot thing. Then they were like, ‘Hey, you're going to stay in it.'

I'm not really sure how long it's going to be. When Feliz comes back and there are rumors that Rupe is coming up here. If they say, ‘Ballard we're going to need you to go back to the ‘pen,' it's something that I've tried before and that I have enjoyed. I would be happy to do it.

Cole: When you were here last year, we talked about how you were throwing a sinker that was helping you quite a bit. Are you still throwing that?

Ballard: Sometimes. I think the sinker maybe last year was just something I was trying because it was towards the end of the season and I was getting a little tired. Stuff like that. I really worked hard this offseason and came into spring in good shape, and I'm trying to maintain that. I feel strong right now. I feel good throwing just two-seamers and four-seamers on the outer half.

Cole: You mentioned how hard you worked over the offseason. You've never been a guy that seemed or looked out of shape, but I mentioned in Spring Training that you looked like a completely different person. What did you do in the offseason to get ready for this year?

Ballard: Scott Servais had mentioned something to me last year, and that was kind of when the light just went off. It was time to take care of myself. The biggest thing was just eating better and not having as many late nights.

To be honest, I was in the gym a ton this offseason. I started every day with probably 20 to 40 minutes on the treadmill. I would get there the same time every day. We watched Pardon the Interruption on ESPN and I had my iPod on. I'd just kind of read along with it and before I know it, I just ran for 30 minutes. That was a little trick that I did so I wouldn't get bored or something like that. It was a lot of running and eating healthy. I started eating tuna for the first time this offseason. Never really been a big tuna fan, but I started to like it.

Cole: You mentioned the slider earlier. Are you throwing the slider right now?

Ballard: Yeah. I'm not really sure how you could call that. It started out last year as a cutter, and it has kind of evolved into kind of a slutter—a slider, cutter combo. Sometimes it will be a little more east to west and sometimes it'll have a little tilt to it, too.

Cole: Did you throw it all year last year? Didn't you put it aside at one point?

Ballard: It started about the mid-way point last year. I remember Rick Adair was in town and we were down in Corpus. He kind of showed me some grips and it didn't really take too long to catch on. But I feel like the more I throw it, the better and more consistent I feel it has gotten.

Cole: Rick Adair is obviously gone this year, and he's now the pitching coach in Seattle. Now Danny Clark is your coordinator. Are there any major differences in what the two guys are doing with not just you, but the pitchers as a whole?

Ballard: Not too much different. They are both great pitching coaches with a wealth of knowledge. Rick obviously has been doing it for a long time. The great thing about Danny is that he really busts his tail for you. If he doesn't know the answer for something, he will do his best to get that answer for you.

They are both guys that have a strategy of attacking the zone, pitching to contact, and getting guys to put the ball in play early in the count. It sounds easy but it's definitely something that they try to emphasize throughout the whole organization.

Cole: You got to work with Terry Clark last year in Frisco, and now you're working with him again in Oklahoma City. What kind of stuff have you been focusing on with him this year?

Ballard: Just quality down. The times when I get into trouble—and probably when most pitchers get into trouble—is when stuff gets up in the zone. I think being a guy who doesn't really overpower guys, that tends to really affect me. If I'm not keeping the ball down or moving the ball in and out and keeping guys off-balance, it's going to be a pretty long afternoon for me. Just making sure you make quality pitches down in the zone.

Cole: When you came up to Triple-A last year, you had a couple of rough outings. Then you settled in late in the year and you're pitching well now. What has been the difference?

Ballard: I think there is always just a little adjustment period. With this one, I felt like it was a bigger adjustment than most just because of the experience of players here. There are some guys who have been playing this game for a long time. They really know how to hit. That makes it tougher on you as a pitcher, to be able to work around that and still be able to get them out.

Cole: You've pitched at every level on the way up except the AZL. Did you feel that Double-A to Triple-A was the toughest jump?

Ballard: I think so. A lot of guys say the jump to Double-A is the toughest. I've definitely taken my lumps along the way everywhere. But I feel like this one, with just the type of veteran guys that you've got around here. There are guys who have been playing this game for 15 years in pro ball. They really know how to think out there from a hitter's standpoint. I feel like you've really got to be on top of it.

Cole: Having pitched in Bakersfield, do you feel that for the pitchers at least, that kind of lessens the jump to Double-A?

Ballard: I didn't think of it that way, but that could very well be it. In that league, if you don't keep the ball down, you're going to get hit around pretty good.


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