The nonroster pitcher believes his work with a sports psychologist has contributed to his improved strikeout rate this spring.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Nonroster pitcher Kameron Loe can certainly visualize continuing in the Mariners’ bullpen beyond his outing here Sunday.
Loe has credited extensive visualization training for an improved strikeout rate this spring after a tough second half last season with the Milwaukee Brewers. But to open the regular season with the Mariners, Loe, 31, must first get beyond Monday, when he can use an “out” clause to void his minor-league deal if the team won’t commit to a roster spot.
The Mariners already let nonroster starting pitcher Jon Garland leave last week and have yet to indicate whether they’ll sacrifice somebody’s roster spot to add Loe to a bullpen long on talent but short on experience. If Loe forces the issue, the Mariners would have no later than Tuesday to decide whether to put the right-handed reliever on the roster or let him walk.
“I hope we can work something out, I really like it here,” said Loe, who struck out three more batters in two scoreless innings Sunday in an 8-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I think they’ve obviously done a good job with the minor-league guys they’ve brought up here and they’ve added some quality veterans to go with them.
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“When you see guys like Jason Bay, or Kelly Shoppach, you’re not just talking about quality on the field, but quality people. And that produces the environment you need to win. Believe me, I’ve seen it.”
Loe was a key member of the Brewers’ bullpen two years ago when Milwaukee advanced to the National League Championship Series. The Mariners hoped his experience could complement a youthful right side of their bullpen that will likely include Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps.
It’s taken time for Loe to round his trademark sinker into form this spring and he has given up his share of hits. But he’s also used a vastly improved changeup to help log 15 strikeouts over nine innings and escape jams relatively unscathed.
Loe feels his visualization work with sports psychologist Dave Austin since last season ended is largely responsible for his changeup taking a major step forward. He felt other aspects of his game needed work as well.
“I wasn’t completely mentally right,” Loe said.
He hired Austin, whose company, Extreme Focus, uses mental training to help top athletes maximize their skills by ignoring outside distractions and zeroing in on what’s most important.
“We set goals for me, do visualization and we talk about fears and how to overcome them,” Loe said.
He admits he spent much of last year dealing with fear that hampered his performance.
“It can be fear of blowing the game, fear of letting your teammates down, of disappointing your family,” Loe said. “You name it, I had it at one time or another. There were points when I’d feel confident and OK, but then other times when I just wasn’t right.”
Austin said the mental side of preparing for games is as important as doing it physically. He and Loe chat by cellphone before every game and go over two or three items the pitcher needs to focus on.
They’ll visualize in-game scenarios so Loe can experience them mentally.
Some days, they focus on his need to stay balanced on the mound. Or, taking things pitch-by-pitch. Austin also reminds Loe to “enjoy the battle” with runners on base, so he isn’t overwhelmed by fear of failure.
“You take it on and channel it into positive energy,” Austin said. “He’ll step off the mound and take a very deep breath so that it grounds him and he can focus on what has to happen next.”
With two on and none out in the seventh inning Sunday, Loe did just that. He rallied with a strikeout of Eric Hinske and a double-play grounder against Mark Teahen.
The pair didn’t set out to specifically improve Loe’s changeup. He just got less worried about what might happen when he threw it.
“He’s doing this all with a pitch that, in the past, he never had success with,” Austin said. “So, he didn’t have confidence in it. And if you subconsciously don’t have confidence in a pitch, it’s just not going to work for you.”
Loe said he has more strikeouts with his changeup this spring than all of last season. He no longer worries about bad things that can happen whenever he lets go of a ball.
“We all have fear,” he said. “It’s a natural defense mechanism we have and we need it to survive. But sometimes, it just gets in the way.”
And if he can just get past this “out” clause business on Monday, there won’t be anything left in his way when it comes to claiming a bullpen spot.