The April weather in Buffalo did not cooperate for Casey Lawrence on Tuesday afternoon, so he threw some pitches in the basement cages of Coca-Cola Field. The weather didn't faze him at all.
"I'm from Pennsylvania. I'm used to the cold," the 29-year old said after going through his normal preparations for a start. Only this isn't any start. It's Opening Day and to be an Opening Day starter, at any level, is an honor for most pitchers.
But last summer, Lawrence wasn't so sure he'd be back on the mound. Not with the way the ball was leaving his hands. After three poor starts with the Bisons, where he gave up 13 runs on 20 hits, he found himself back in Double-A with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. His game had stalled.
That's when he started working with Vince Horsman, the Fisher Cats' pitching coach. For the first time in his seven years in pro ball, Lawrence changed his mechanics.
And the results, well, at first they were disastrous. Those first four or five starts with the new delivery?
"They were ugly," Lawrence said.
"There was a start in Altoona, Pennsylvania which my family is about an hour-and-a-half from there," said Lawrence, a native of McSherrytown, Pa. "They were at the game and I gave up like six runs in four innings. I talked to them after the game and I was like, 'I can't keep doing this.' I'm embarrassed going out there and not giving my team a chance to win. I was at wits' end with it.
"Vince Horsman sat me down and he told me, 'Just give it a little more time. We're seeing improvement.' OK. I'll do it. It was a testament to him believing me. I was going to trust it and the results came. Thank God."
The adjustment came not from his arm but from his legs. He watched a lot of video of Pedro Martinez and with the help of Horsman, worked to change his first step out of the windup with his left foot, taking a bigger step back. That allowed him to throw in the 92-94 mile-per-hour range when he previously would top out around 88-89.
"Just generating a little more momentum back, almost like a rubber band – back and then forward," Lawrence said. "A lot went into it."
"I'm definitely pitching differently. More aggressive in the strike zone. I'm able to throw the ball by guys where before I relied on my command. At first when I made the adjustment, my command wasn't what it was. But once my command came back with velocity, that's when things took off."
Lawrence earned a promotion back to the Bisons on July 5 and locked himself into a starting rotation spot. Over his final 11 starts, he went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA, striking out 46 batters in 67 1/3 innings. The performance earned him the Bisons' Comeback Player of the Year award.
"It's hard to change late in your career and get better. He did it," said Bisons' manager Bobby Meacham who spent three seasons with Lawrence in New Hampshire. "He changed and took a leap of faith to try to do some things to increase his velocity, be a little tougher to navigate through a lineup because he has more velocity. But to do that you have to change your mechanics a little bit and go outside of who you who were. He did a great job with that.
"Casey just improved so much last year. Last year it was so fun to watch him really excel, not only in Double-A, but then he came," to the Bisons, and did really well. Then I watched him in spring training and saw him take even another step forward. I'm exited to see what he's going to do Thursday for sure, but mostly just to see how much he's improved year after year."