Mention the walks and David Aardsma cracks a smile and chuckles.
Oh the walks. They were the nemesis of Buffalo Bisons pitchers for a stretch. The Herd’s pitching staff wasn’t necessarily giving up a ton of free passes. They actually issued the fourth-fewest walks in the International League (103) coming into Monday’s game against the Toledo Mud Hens at Coca-Cola Field.
The problem was the timing of the walks, which more often than not came around to score.
But that trend has self-corrected and the Bisons’ pitching staff, and the bullpen in particular, has been solid over the last 10 games.
Monday’s 4-1 win over Toledo had some interesting moments, as Aardsma issued two walks with a hit batter in the ninth before a flyout, strikeout and grounder to first ended the game. He picked up his sixth save of the season while the Bisons picked up their 13th team save to lead the International League.
On May 7, the Bisons’ team earned run average ranked 12th in the 14-team International League at 3.83. They entered the week with the fourth-best ERA and left Monday’s win at 3.07.
With a team that is dead last in the IL in hitting, pitching has been what has carried the Herd to a 7-3 record over the last 10 games.
The key to the good pitching – throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count – has a simplicity in philosophy and a difficulty in execution. That execution becomes more difficult in cold weather. Out of spring training, the Bisons’ pitching staff was clicking. Then came a spate of frigid temperatures, and the focus and control collectively went off track.
“It sounds simple. It’s just doing everything perfect. That’s our job,” Aardmsa said. “But what it is sometimes, especially when it’s colder, you start pressing because you don’t feel as good, the ball’s not coming out as hard as it should be, so instead of focusing on what you should be focusing on, you’re focusing on velocity. Or you’re focusing on how you’re feeling. And you keep trying harder, and now all of a sudden your pitches aren’t as good. They’re flat, over the plate, you start getting hit or you’re missing.
“When you get rid of that mindset and say, ‘Hey it’s cold. I can deal with it,’ you just worry about what you can control and throw your pitch.”
The cold actually helped Scott Diamond, who had the longest outing of a starter for the Herd this season, pitching 7 1-3 innings and giving up one run on eight hits with two strikeouts for his third win.
“I think the cold kept my fatigue level at a lower level,” Diamond said. On the Herd’s recent road trip in “Durham and Norfolk, it was warmer and we could try to loosen up and let it fly a little more. Tonight I was a little more reserved and it seemed to allow me to go deeper in the game.”
Diamond has found success − he has six quality starts − by improving his change-up, something he worked on with fellow starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc.
“I’d say the biggest reason for the success is my change-up,” Diamond said. “I’ve been throwing a lot more. In the past people just assumed I had a decent one but from working with LeBlanc, our starter” Tuesday “we’ve really been able to establish one. It’s been a big pitch for me and it’s really opened up the entire zone. I’ve been getting a lot more ground balls and quick outs because of it.”
Good pitching, like good hitting, can be contagious. Pitchers help each other out, like LeBlanc’s work with Diamond on the change-up, and share an energy that creates a competitive atmosphere conducive to improvement.
“A couple of guys go out and have a great ball game, you congratulate them in the locker room,” Aardsma said. “They come out to the bullpen the next day and the energy that they have, it’s absolutely contagious. And also we’re all competitive. We’re friends, we’re teammates but we’re competing against each other. So somebody goes out there and has a good inning, you want to have a good inning. And so it starts snowballing. We’re all pitching well. We’re all competing against each other and it’s great for ourselves and for our team and hopefully everyone else sees it.”