By Eric Johnson
Most pitchers planning on playing in college dream of being in the starting rotation right away. However, that rarely happens. Starting pitchers are developed in ways that go far beyond raw stuff. The best pitchers understand how to truly pitch, not just throw. As a result, most of the new pitchers in a program will start off in the ‘pen.
That’s nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. No college team can get through a season without relying on the bullpen. But being a relief pitcher at the college level is a tricky business. Most young pitchers are not used to coming out of the ‘pen, because they used to be the stud starters in high school. Here are a few tips to becoming a successful relief pitcher.
- Find a way to keep your arm in shape and fresh. This can be hard. You might have to get used to throwing long-toss before the game, and still having enough gas in the tank to pitch an inning. Most of the time, coaches will try to let you know what your role is likely to be on game day, but plans can change depending on in-game situations. Make sure that your arm is feeling good enough to be ready for anything.
- Find a way to stay mentally sharp. Again, achieving a “relief mindset” is a big challenge for pitchers coming out of high school. Most guys are used to knowing exactly which day they’re going to pitch. As a reliever, you could be warming up in all 3 weekend games and only come in to throw to one hitter. Or you could not have thrown at all one week, and then could be called on (out of the blue) in an important situation. You have to find a way to mentally “turn it on” during the game, whether it be on the bench, in the ‘pen, or while warming up. The best relievers can turn their intensity on at the flip of a switch.
- Throw strikes. Nothing will drive a coach crazier than having a reliever come in and get into hitters counts or walking guys. When you come in, challenge the hitter. You’re a different look to him, and he’s not sure what he’s going to get. Be ready to throw strikes immediately, and go after him.
- Control your emotions. There will be a lot of new emotions coming out of the ‘pen. Some guys won’t feel ready, others will be totally amped. No matter what you’re feeling, take a deep breath and find a way to control yourself on the mound. You have a job to do and it has to be done right then. Focus and get after it.
During your freshman year, you should be ready to be a reliever no matter what promises have been made throughout the recruiting process. If you want to be a starter, strive for that. But if you get put in the ‘pen, don’t be discouraged. A relief pitcher plays an extremely important role and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to come up huge for your team.