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Mud Hens pitcher Duane Below recently was asked how he could improve in the final eight weeks of this season. His answers came quickly, almost rapid-fire.
“I need to be more consistent with all my pitches,” said the native of Britton, Mich., the hamlet just 25 miles north of Toledo. “I need to throw more first-pitch strikes and have fewer walks. I need to get more groundouts than flyouts.
“It’s little things like working off my fastball, working my pitches in-and-out and up-and-down. And it’s getting a hitter out on two or three pitches instead of working deep into a count. There’s always room for improvement, ways to get better.”
Sounds like a guy who is struggling to pitch in Triple-A, doesn’t it? Truth is, the 25-year-old lefty has been one of the International League’s best pitchers, ranking among the league leaders in several different categories.
“I’m a little disappointed he didn’t get picked for the All-Star Game,” Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin said of Below. “If you look at his numbers compared to the guys who are going, he is worthy of it.”
At the break Below is 9-5 with a 3.06 ERA; he is tied for the IL lead in wins and ranks sixth in ERA. Opponents are hitting .225 against him, the fourth-lowest mark among the league’s starting pitchers, and he has allowed just 10.57 baserunners per nine innings, which ranks fifth.
“I’m pleased with the innings, and I’m pleased that I have allowed fewer hits than innings,” Below said. “In previous years I’ve given up quite a few more hits than innings, so my goal is to have fewer hits than innings. If I do that, everything else will go well.
“And if I’m pitching a lot of innings, that means I must be doing well. And more innings shows that I can handle the workload.”
The questions regarding Below’s ability to handle a starter’s workload stem from the Tommy John surgery which wrecked his 2009 season.
“He came back very quickly from the surgery — probably quicker than most,” said Jon Matlack, the Tigers minor league pitching coordinator. “He had a solid year [in 2010] without any glitches.
“He was restricted by a pitch-count, but he has made good progress.”
The pitch-count limits also limited Below’s chances to win games last season, resulting in a 7-12 record. But Below answered the bell every fifth day and posted a 4.93 ERA in 28 starts.
This season, Below has posted a “quality” start — allowing three earned runs or fewer while pitching six innings or more — 12 of the 17 times he has taken the mound for Toledo. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound lefty has been especially impressive in his last three starts, winning all three while allowing just 12 hits and three earned runs in 20 innings.
“The thing you judge is consistency, and every fifth day he goes out there and gives us a chance to win,” Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager said of Below. “He’s been able to throw pitches at different speeds for strikes, he’s not afraid to pitch inside, and he pitches to both sides of the plate.”
Sager said Below also brings some intangibles to the mound.
“He fields his position well, and he holds runners well,” Sager said. “And he prepares well. He does a lot of things that give himself a chance to win.”
Nevin agreed, adding, “He’s a ‘strike’ guy who’s getting ahead of hitters and pitching to contact. He’s really keeping us in games.
“More times than not, we play better defense behind him because he works so quickly and keeps the fielders on their toes.”
You would think Below would be satisfied by his performance for the Hens so far this season, but he’s not.
Category Number Hens rank* IL rank
Wins 9 1st T1st
ERA 3.06 1st 6th
Innings 109.0 1st 2nd
Strikeouts 78 3rd NR
Opponent’s batting avg. .225 1st 4th
Baserunners per 9 innings 10.57 1st 5th
* among those who qualify for league rankings
NR — not ranked
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “I want to do better in the second half than I did in the first half. I’m trying to push myself to where I want to be, and to where I need to be.”
Did Below want to be on the International League’s All-Star team, pitching in the Triple-A All-Star Game tomorrow in Salt Lake City?
“It doesn’t bother me [not to be there],” he said. “It would have been nice, but I’m here to try and get better to help me reach my main goal: to get to the major leagues and establish myself there.”
Or does Below want to be in Detroit, pitching for the Tigers? Several Mud Hens starters, including fellow lefties Charlie Furbush, Andy Oliver and Adam Wilk, have been summoned. With the Tigers still looking for a fifth starter, does Below expect to get that call up to Detroit soon?
“I try not to think too much, but everybody thinks about it,” said Below, a graduate of Britton-Macon High School. “I try to do my best to keep my mind on where I am at. I’m having a good time here, I’m doing well, and I have my family and friends close.
“If it happens, it happens. And when it does happen, that will be nice. I’ve been excited for the other guys who get to go up, and when I get my opportunity I hope to take it and run with it.”
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.