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Control, closers and clocks

We're taking a little unscheduled detour toward some Joel Hanrahan analysis. Because tonight's game ends so late, I had to write a feature story pre-game; essentially, a stand-in for the usual game story wordage that won't be coming for the earlier print editions. So, I decided to write about Hanrahan. For one thing, he got the closer's job this week. For another thing, he was drafted by the Dodgers. He spent seven years in their organization, never making it to the majors. He knows "about half" of the guys in the opposing clubhouse.

I didn't really set out looking for a turning point in Hanrahan's season, but after talking to Hanrahan and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, I think we can pinpoint one.

May 7 -- at Houston. That night, in 2-1/3 innings, Hanrahan walked five (though two were intentional.) It was his 14th appearance of the year, and the fifth in which he'd walked multiple batters. Perhaps you remember the game in April when his wild pitch in the 14th allowed the winning run to score.

On the morning of May 8, here were Hanrahan's numbers.

IP: 19.0
ERA: 5.21
BB: 18
HB: 1
WP: 3

Since May 9, here are Hanrahan's numbers:

IP: 40-1/3
ERA: 3.35
BB: 14
HB: 0
WP: 3

Anyway, here's the backstory. After that game, Hanrahan talked with Randy St. Claire. By that point, St. Claire was determined that Hanrahan's problem was entirely mental. St. Claire liked his pitcher's mechanics, and obviously, loved his velocity. But Hanrahan had a tendency to get way too hyped up. When that happened, his control unraveled. In his beautiful, typically descriptive way, here is how St. Claire articulated the sensation...

"For me, his biggest adjustment is his mental approach... I think the game controlled him. In the big leagues, you've got the crowd, TV, ESPN, newspapers, all of it. It focuses into one area, the mound, and there you are thinking, 'I better do well. Everybody is watching.' It's big time here. This isn't Class AA. This isn't Class AAA. You know, (you're thinking) if I [mess] it up, everybody is going to see it. And that adrenaline, it takes over guys. When they cross that white line, some guys can't do it. You know? That's this game. Guys that are real good? You go out to talk to them, you can put your hand on their chest and their heartbeat is normal. Other guys, you put your hand on their chest, and their heart is pounding through uniform. Ba-bum, ba-bum! Literally. They're so hyped up and sped up. Their mind races. They lose their mechanics. They don't allow themselves to execute their pitches. They stop thinking about that slider low and away. It goes right down the middle. And Joel, he's trying to make that adjustment. I tell him, your game is between you and the catcher. I try to make it very simplified."

After that game, Hanrahan and St. Claire devised a little trick. When in his room, even his hotel room, Hanrahan was to pick out an object (say, a cup, or the hand of a clock) and focus on it. While the TV was on, volume up. The goal? Hanrahan needed to tune out distractions. The clock (or the cup - whatever) was like the catcher's mitt.

Does this sound a little ridiculous? Maybe like having a fumble-prone running back carry a football to class? Who knows. But it's worked, both St. Claire and Hanrahan agree.

"It's a mechanism," Hanrahan said. "You focus on something, take your focus off and see if you can get it back. It's helped out a ton."

By Chico Harlan  |  July 25, 2008; 10:24 PM ET
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