Tim Meeks was a 23-year-old pitcher with a live arm and a bright future the last time he threw a complete-game shutout. That was back in 1985, when Meeks was a prospect in the Dodgers organization pitching for a young, fiery Albuquerque manager by the name of Terry Collins.
Arm problems that required surgery have forced Meeks to become a different pitcher than he was back then. Mr. Fastball is now Mr. Finesse, and that makes the shutout a little more difficult to come by. But not impossible to come by.
Meeks found magic in his arsenal of breaking and off-speed pitches on Thursday night and blanked the Tidewater Tides, 3-0, on five hits before 20,736 fans at Pilot Field.
The victory snapped the Buffalo Bisons' three-game losing streak. It also ended a string of three straight sub-par starts by Meeks.
Meeks had lasted six innings or fewer in each of those three starts. He allowed 14 earned runs in 15 innings. Every hitter seemed like a batting champion as opponents battered Meeks for a .317 average.
The reason for Thursday's turnaround is fundamental.
Every pitcher, but particularly a finesse pitcher, enhances his chances for success by working from ahead in the count. Meeks (2-4) found the strike zone from the start, and that enabled him to stem the Tides on an efficient 102 pitches. He walked one batter and went three balls deep to three others.
The Bisons required a complete game almost as badly as they required a victory.
Their bullpen was tired and tattered after the Herd dropped four of five games on its road trip. There was a need to regroup.
Buffalo hitters provided their support by opening a 3-0 lead by the end of the third inning. Good thing, too. Because once Tidewater starter Anthony Young (3-7) settled down, the Bisons were troubled to touch him.
But Young, rated by Baseball America as the Mets' No. 1 prospect, had difficulty early.
He allowed a run in the second when Jeff Banister doubled for Buffalo's third hit of the inning. The Bisons produced three more hits in the third, and this time cashed them in for two runs. Scott Little singled and scored on a ground out by Greg Sparks. Jeff Schulz singled and scored on a base hit by Keith Miller.
Buffalo had one more hit the remainder of the way. That was John Wehner's eighth-inning single off reliever Rich Sauveur.
But Meeks was up to protecting the runs his teammates mustered early. The Tides never put together two hits in an inning, and twice were induced into double plays. And the times that Meeks was hit hard, his defenders, notably center fielder Cecil Espy, made the plays.
It seemed like a breeze, and all because Meeks worked the count to his favor.
Perhaps one of the reasons Meeks threw more strikes is because he was a little more deliberate in his approach. Usually Meeks works so quickly you would think he is paying the light bill.
"The thing that they've been talking to me about is slowing my pace down," Meeks said. "I'm very quick. I get the ball and I go, go, go. Tonight they held me back."
"We just got him to slow down a little," said catcher Jeff Banister. "We didn't want him to rush and throw a bad pitch."
Meeks likes to work at a hectic pace. He believes it helps him establish a rhythm while making the hitters uncomfortable. But his last three starts left him open to suggestions.
"I had to try something," he said. "I pitched three times in a row and I didn't do that well, I had to do something different out there.
"One of the things is being aggressive. My charts say I'm 2-0, 3-1 to every hitter, and they're getting hits off me. And that's not me. I have to throw strikes. That's the bottom line."
"What he did was nothing special," Banister said. "He threw strikes and mixed it up. We didn't throw anyone a fastball until we had to."
The Bisons will look to set a new pace of their own when the two-game series concludes at 7:05 tonight (Radio 550).
All-Star Rick Reed (7-3, 1.92) will oppose left-hander Erick Hillman (2-9, 3.86). Buffalo last won back-to-back games on June 20 and 21.