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Shane Loux admits he might have been a wee bit overconfident when he first came to Toledo two seasons ago.
“I thought I was on top of the world,” Loux said. “I had a pretty good season in Double-A, and I came out of my first big-league spring training. I thought I could blow everybody away and not have to make pitches.
“I had a pretty rude awakening.”
A 10-11 record, a 5.78 ERA and an International League-leading 73 walks in 151 innings do make for a loud alarm clock. But Loux woke up and now, two years later, has made himself one of the top pitchers in the IL. In fact, he was one of only two pitchers chosen by league media and on-field personnel as part of the 10-man staff that represented the IL in last night's Triple-A All-Star game.
Loux also has become one of the leading candidates for a promotion to Detroit should the Tigers need another starter.
This year, Loux, who will turn 24 on Aug. 13, has a 9-6 record with a 3.13 ERA for the Hens. His victory total and ERA rank among the best in the league, and the numbers point to the progress the right-hander has made from that 21-year-old world-beater who struggled in Toledo in 2001.
“I realize every day how much of a clue I didn't have” two years ago, Loux said. “I thought it was going to be a cakewalk. I thought I was going to come in, blow fastballs by guys, throw mediocre breaking balls, have no change-up and [still] have success - and get to the big leagues in a month. But it doesn't work out that way.
“Last year I realized it took more, but I really didn't do it. I realized there was more than just putting your uniform on and throwing the ball towards the plate, but this year I understand that it's a process, and that it's as much mental as it is physical.”
Jeff Jones was the Hens' pitching coach when Loux arrived, and Jones remembers that inconsistent pitcher who thought a 12-9 record and 3.82 ERA in Double-A Jacksonville in 2000 made him a sure shot for Toledo stardom.
“Shane came up young, he was only 21, inexperienced,” said Jones, still the team's pitching coach. “I remember after his second start, when we talked about his breaking ball and he said to me, `Every time I throw it they foul it off. When I was in Jacksonville last year, they swung and missed.' He was experiencing some of the growing pains of playing at a higher level and realizing what he could do, and what he couldn't do.”
Loux had his moments in 2001, including a 4-1 record in June. Last season things got a little better, as he finished with an 11-10 mark and 4.72 ERA. He also threw three complete-game shutouts to lead the IL in that category. But Loux knows that one of the things he lacked those two seasons was consistency.
“[In 2001] I'd go out and throw six or seven shutout innings, and then you wouldn't hear from me again for another month or so. It was like a different guy came to the field. But it was funny, because Jonesie said they would rather have me be consistently bad because then they would know what to fix.”
This season Loux has been a model of consistency. Of his 18 starts for the Hens, 12 have been “quality starts” - efforts of at least six innings with no more than three earned runs allowed. And among the six nonquality starts were five innings of shutout ball against Indianapolis in his first start as well as three other starts where he allowed three earned runs or fewer in five innings.
And his 9-6 record might look better if the Hens had scored more runs. In eight of Loux's 18 starts Toledo has managed three runs or fewer.
“He's come a million miles since he first got here,” Jones said. “He's learned a lot about pitching. He's understanding what he can and cannot do. He's reading the hitters and what they can do. Learning how to pitch and learning how to use all of his pitches, not overthrowing pitches, and his delivery has gotten a lot better. It's a lot smoother. He's throwing his breaking ball when he's supposed to throw it.
“It's just a joy to watch him pitch right now.”
One of the things Loux and Jones have worked on is a cut fastball, or “cutter.” Jones said this new pitch, combined with a fastball, curve, change-up and sinker Loux already had, has given the right-hander a new weapon to retire lefties.
“With his cutter, it allows Shane to consistently get the ball in on left-handers,” Jones said. “With his sinker moving away from the left-handers, this gives Shane more of the plate to work with.”
Loux said one of the biggest reasons for his success has been his work with Jones, a relationship that goes beyond their time between the white lines.
“There aren't many coaches whose number I have programmed into my phone,” Loux said. “It's hard to establish a relationship with somebody on another level, someone you can talk to about things other than baseball, but he's one of those guys, and that helps our on-field relationship.”
The success Loux has enjoyed this season has thrust him into the spotlight again with the Tigers. Detroit manager Alan Trammell said Loux will be the choice should the Tigers make changes in the rotation.
“I really want to hear that, but I really don't want to hear it,” Loux said. “I really was bothered by that [talk] early in the year, but I talked with Jonesie about that and now I realize it's not for me to decide. My job is to go out every five days here and give my team an opportunity to win.
“I think I've done that, and I hope Detroit has noticed that. And when it comes times to make a change, I hope that it's me. All those guys up there are my friends, so I'm not wishing bad for them. I just needed a opportunity, a chance, and I hope to get it soon with Detroit.”
Even if Loux doesn't get that chance with the Tigers this season, there's always next season. If he's not on Detroit's 40-man roster, Loux can become a six-year free agent. And if he does make the 40-man squad, Loux will be out of options next season, meaning he can't be sent to Toledo without the opportunity to become a free agent.
“I've picked a good year to have a good year,” Loux said. “There are a lot of good things that can happen for me after this season. If I can't make it to the big leagues with Detroit, hopefully this year or next year in spring training, then this will open up my options as to where I can go.”
Jones said his advice to Loux, should he get the call to Detroit, would be to not change anything.
“Don't try to throw harder, don't try to throw a better breaking ball, because that's where you run into problems - trying to do things you're not capable of doing.”
Loux said he hopes to not change anything if he should get the call to Detroit.
“Hopefully I can build on what's going on here, and when I do get my chance, make the same pitches I'm making here. Hopefully I'll get that opportunity soon.”
And you can be certain Loux won't have deal with overconfidence when he gets that call.