For the last two years, left-hander Mike Ballard has wanted to pitch winterball in one of the Caribbean leagues.
Unfortunately, the Rangers didn't give Ballard the opportunity after his 2008 season, but they allowed him to do it this year, sending him to the Caguas Criollos of Puerto Rico, a team run by Rangers scout Frankie Thon.
The 25-year-old has been one of the top pitchers on his team this winter, going 2-1 with a 1.90 earned-run average. In 23.2 innings, he has yielded just 20 hits while walking seven and striking out 10.
Although he began the season as more of a long reliever, Ballard has worked his way into the Caguas rotation. Lone Star Dugout spoke to him in Mayaguez, just two hours before his start on Tuesday night. The University of Virginia product later went out and tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just three hits.
Ballard is having this success on the heels of an outstanding second half at Double-A Frisco, where he was 5-2 with a 3.03 ERA in 77.1 innings.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound hurler has excellent command of a four-pitch arsenal that includes an 86-88 mph fastball, a big curveball, a slider-cutter hybrid, and a plus changeup. Ballard's excellent changeup has always made him successful against right-handers hitters, but the development of his cutter has helped him limit southpaws to just a .143 average this winter.
Lone Star Dugout caught up with Ballard on Tuesday afternoon to discuss not only his experience in winterball, but also his travels around the Caribbean island.
Jason Cole: Judging by the numbers, it looks like you've been pitching pretty well out in Puerto Rico this winter. How do you feel about it?
Mike Ballard: I feel like it's going good. I've just been really enjoying it. I think it has been nice to kind of get away from the everyday–I guess sometimes it can feel more like a job. But here, it's really nice. It's almost like you're just playing in the backyard back home or out in the street with a bunch of friends when you were younger. It has been really enjoyable out here. We're having fun. They take a lot of pride in their baseball down here.
Cole: You got the start in your previous outing with Caguas. Are you a starter now, or was that just a spot-start?
Ballard: I know our GM–Frankie Thon–had talked to Scott Servais, and I guess they kind of talked about some stuff. I'm actually starting tonight, so I guess for right now, they want me to keep starting. We'll see. I don't envision them wanting me to go seven innings or anything like that because I think they want to try and keep me fresh.
In my first start, I don't want to say I was wild, but I was missing a lot early on. I threw a lot of pitches. I didn't really get into huge, huge jams, but any time I got in a little jam, I was able to work myself out of it. I threw a lot of pitches early on. I think I walked three guys in the first two innings, but then I really settled down after that. I ended up throwing like 80 pitches in those four-plus innings.
Cole: What is the talent level like in Puerto Rico compared to what you faced in Double-A or Triple-A ball?
Ballard: The thing that I heard coming in was that the talent level here was a little less and whatnot, but I think those are all just rumors. There are a number of guys here with a considerable amount of big league time just on our team. And on other teams. I mean, Pudge was my teammate a couple weeks ago. There are a lot of veteran guys–Alex Cora, Alex Cintron, and a reliever with the Nationals–Saul Rivera. It's a lot of Double-A and Triple-A guys. It's guys who are a little older and definitely have some experience. I think the talent level here is pretty good.
A good little indicator would be when we went over to the Dominican for two days. We played their two best teams–Licey and Escogido–and we were just as good as those teams. They were no better than us. We lost one of the games in the bottom of the ninth, and the other game, we were right there tied with them in the seventh before we kind of gave it up late and ended up losing 5-3. I think the talent level here is just as good as anywhere else down in the Caribbean in the winter leagues.
Cole: You mentioned playing with Ivan Rodriguez. Did you get a chance to throw to him in a game situation?
Ballard: No, he was just with us for a week or two. Right before he signed that contract with the Nationals. He was just DHing and kind of working his way back into it, because a lot of those guys–the bigger name guys–will play winterball, but they won't start playing until the middle of December.
It's just to kind of get ready for the season coming up. He was in those early fine-tuning stages, so he didn't do any catching for us. He just DHed a bunch, and then when he signed the contract when the Nationals, they were like, ‘Alright, that's good. You don't need to play anymore.'
Cole: Is there anything in specific you're working on when you pitch in games out there?
Ballard: I think more than anything, it's just having fun. A lot of the older guys–we've had meetings–and we just talk about not adding pressure. It's such a big deal down here for these guys, and there is a lot of pride at stake. But at the same time, they are always preaching about just having fun and letting the game come naturally to you instead of pressing so much.
I think, for me, I've just been trying to make good, quality pitches and get guys out. I think, at this point in my baseball career, it's more about putting up results than it is developmental. I think that's a big thing down here. It's about winning. They don't care how you do it or what you do. If you have to drop down to throw a slider or a curveball to a lefty–they don't care how you do it as long as you get it done. I think that has been a good thing for me to kind of pick up on. At this point in my career, I feel like it's more about getting guys out. It's not as much development at this point.
Cole: I know you guys are in the stretch drive of the season and in the middle of a playoff race. How is that going?
Ballard: We're right in the thick of things for the playoffs. We're hoping to keep it going and make it to the playoffs. Maybe we can play some good baseball down the stretch and wind up in that Caribbean Series. I know a lot of guys–we've been talking in the bullpen and in the dugout. A lot of guys–especially the import players–nobody wants to go home.
It really is like paradise here. You're on this beautiful island. You wake up every day and it's sunny and 85 degrees. You walk a block down to the beach and you're at the ocean where water is just blue. I don't think anyone wants to go home. It's kind of like a vacation, but at the same time, you're getting paid to play baseball. It really couldn't be any more perfect.
Cole: I know a lot of the American guys in those Caribbean leagues kind of come and go. Are you going to be there as long as your team is playing?
Ballard: I hope so. Unless someone decides otherwise. I'd like to be because I feel like I'm getting better as a pitcher down here just by facing the competition. Anything to kind of fine-tune me or get me ready for Spring Training, to go in there full-throttle. It can only help me.
Cole: Going back to your regular season, you got off to a bit of a slow start in Frisco. Then, in the second half, it was like you were going seven or eight innings literally every time out. What was the difference for you? What clicked?
Ballard: I think that's kind of when it all started. I felt like I was pressing too much. I was worrying about things that were maybe out of my control. I was getting away from the basics and just pitching and having fun. I think that's kind of where, in the middle of the season, I just thought, ‘You know what? I'm just going to go out there and have fun.' It was more reacting instead of playing ahead. And I think that has really helped me. It has just freed me up to go out there and have fun. I feel like I've been able to, for the most part, carry that over from the end of the season to down here.
Cole: It seems like, if you want to have fun, pitching down there in Puerto Rico is kind of the ideal place to be. How do you think that second half, plus pitching in Puerto Rico, will help you coming into the 2010 season?
Ballard: I feel like it can definitely help me. Just from both an experience standpoint and just from a confidence thing. If you're going good and you're clicking all together when it's time to roll into Spring Training, I feel like you're going to be that much more energized. I've been up to Spring Training early before, and I've seen a bunch of guys there early. That's when a lot of guys are working out the kinks and stuff like that.
It'll be nice to go in there really ready to go as opposed to some guys who are like, ‘I haven't really thrown a changeup or a breaking ball yet in bullpen work.' I feel like I'll be further ahead. The one thing about that is that you hope–and I think Scott Servais was wondering about this before–just that you're not overdoing it to where you're hitting a wall in mid-July next year.
Cole: Last year when you came out of Spring Training, you were a reliever. Then you quickly went back into the rotation. And you're doing a little of both in Puerto Rico now. Do you have any idea what your role will be in 2010, or is that still up in the air?
Ballard: That's something that's out of my control. Obviously everyone likes to start and to have that set schedule. But at the same time, I really like being out of the bullpen. I like that uncertainty of not knowing when you're going to pitch. You have to always be ready. It keeps you on your toes. You don't really take a step back and relax. You're always ready because you have to be.
I like not having to worry about saving pitches to hitters. If it's early in the game and you're starting, if you have a guy set up to throw this pitch here, but it's two outs in the first inning and nobody on, then there's really no need to show them that pitch yet. You might save that for the second or third time through the lineup. But coming out of the bullpen, it's nice because you don't have to worry about that. You're more or less just kind of throwing everything you've got at them.
Cole: How's your Spanish getting?
Ballard: My Spanish needs work, to say the least. It definitely needs work. I wish it would get better, but I'm getting by. Most people down here speak English, and I've been able to kind of spanglish my way through some scenarios and situations to get through it.
Cole: You guys have an odd number of teams in the league, so you end up having quite a few days off. Tell me about some of the things you've been doing on those days off.
Ballard: I've definitely been taking advantage of the days off. I've been doing lots of exploring. I'm checking out a lot of parts of the island–the rainforest. There's a really cool island that I've actually been to twice now. It's a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. I probably shouldn't be letting this out because maybe people will catch wind of it, and then it won't be as neat anymore because it won't be so remote.
But it's a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico called Culebra. Basically you drive out east to this little town called Fajardo. Then you catch a ferry. It's like a $4 round-trip ferry ride. It's an hour-long ferry ride out east even more off the coast to this small island. Travel Channel, a couple years back, rated their main beach–Flamenco Beach–one of the top five beaches in the world. It seriously has the whitest sand and the bluest, clearest water you've ever seen.
It kind of reminds you of a Corona commercial. Those commercials where it's just absolutely paradise. That's what it looks like. The reason is, when you're driving up to the beach on that island, there's a lagoon where all the rainwater and runoff from the mountain goes. None of it ever goes into the ocean, so it just keeps the sand super white and the water really blue and clear. There are reefs out there. We've had some really nice days out there. It has been really relaxing.
Cole: I know you've wanted to play winterball in the past, and you finally got your opportunity to do it this year. Is it something that you want to do every year now?
Ballard: If they would let me play down here every year, it would be paradise. It's really relaxing, but at the same time you're getting good baseball in. The cool thing about it is–because it's not that big of an island; it's 30 miles from north-to-south and 100 miles from east-to-west–because it's relatively small compared to the Dominican and Venezuela and Mexico, you don't have any road trips.
You don't stay in hotels for three and four nights. You're not on the road. The farthest trip we had was the one today, and it's a two-hour drive. Yeah, it kind of stinks driving two hours, but you get to sleep in your bed every night. You're at your apartment every night, so it feels a little more like a home than if you're on the road all the time.
Ballard thriving in relaxed atmosphere
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