You have to be humble, because it's a real roller coaster." -- Jeremy Sowers, June, 2006
A little over a year ago, Sowers was riding high. The young left-hander was the top pitcher in the minor leagues. After going 9-1 with a 1.39 ERA for the Bisons, he went up to Cleveland in early July and beat the Yankees for his first big-league win. After the All-Star break, Sowers had the lowest ERA in the AL.
The Indians shut him down in September to preserve his arm, and Sowers hasn't been the same pitcher since. This year, he went 1-6 with a 6.93 ERA before the Indians sent him to Buffalo, where he is still searching for his first win.
It's easy to be humble when you go from 9-1 to 1-9 in a year. Sowers, a Vanderbilt graduate, wishes he had an explanation. Last year, it seemed almost too easy. Batted balls went right at people. He had impeccable command. He got the close calls. This year, it's so elusive.
"You don't know why things happen sometimes," Sowers said Sunday. "It can be unexplainable. It hasn't quite happened yet this year. I'm seeing signs, but I still can't seem to sustain a certain rhythm and get into a groove. Pitchers have bad years, bad months, bad days. This game is built around luck and inches, little things."
It is also built on location. His fastball tops out around 90 mph. He relies on guile, control and changing speeds. But he hasn't fooled many hitters this year. With Cleveland, he gave up nearly 12 hits per nine innings. In 62 innings, he gave up 10 homers and struck out only 19.
The Indians sent him here to be "repaired." Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said Sowers needed to work on the mental part of his game. It's become chic to suggest that Sowers, who aspires to go into politics some day, thinks too much.
"People always want to have an answer for why things go wrong," said Sowers, the sixth pick in the 2000 draft. "Are you thinking too much? Are you not thinking enough? Are you confident? There's a myriad of things they're suggesting. If it was that simple, it wouldn't be so elusive to me right now."
On Saturday, Sowers gave up five runs in seven innings in a 6-1 loss to Durham. He gave up four runs in the third, hurting himself by making a futile dive for a bunt and throwing the ball away. Durham hit a lot of balls hard for outs.
Sowers settled into a rhythm as the game wore on. Bisons manager Torey Lovullo was apologetic afterward when he described it as a solid outing for Sowers, considering all he's been through.
"It takes character," Lovullo said. "We're watching Jeremy battle through some second-guessing and negative thoughts. It's part of his growth. He's going to progress back to where he was."
Sowers said he has no physical or mechanical problems. His confidence is shaken, yes. He'd be lying if he said otherwise. A year ago, he seemed suspicious of his success, as if he knew the baseball gods would get him eventually.
"I don't look at what I did before as an extreme," said Sowers, 23. "I did it for two straight years. I did it in college. I did it in high school. Am I going to have a 1.4 ERA for 100 innings? That was probably some luck. But I know I can get people out in important situations, pitch deep into games and win ballgames."
Sowers seemed ambivalent about the All-Star break. He'll have to wait a week to pitch again, but he'll have a three-day vacation. Baseball is great, but there are other things in life. His identical twin brother, Josh, quit the game last spring for a career in litigation. Josh, a pitcher in the Toronto system, no longer had the desire to ride the roller coaster.
It's a humbling life. As Jeremy can attest, it's a different sort of humility when you're been to the top, and you don't know if you'll ever be up there again.