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Published: 4/20/2011

Oliver working on his mechanics with Hens

Pitcher isn't in a hurry to return to Detroit

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Toledo Mud Hens pitcher Andrew Oliver fires in a pitch. Toledo Mud Hens pitcher Andrew Oliver fires in a pitch.
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Andrew Oliver's brief time in the major leagues last season did not go well.

But the Mud Hens' left-hander seems poised to turn the troubles he had in five major league starts a year ago into the foundation for a long, successful major-league career down the road.

Oliver and his Toledo teammates did not play Tuesday, as their contest against Indianapolis at Fifth Third Field was postponed by rain.

The two teams will play this morning at 10:30 a.m., then play a doubleheader Thursday starting at 5:30 p.m. to make up the rainout.

Last season was Oliver's first as a professional after the Tigers selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State. He pitched well for Double-A Erie, posting a 6-4 record and 3.61 ERA in 14 starts to earn a late June promotion to Detroit.

"Obviously I wanted to be up there -- I just didn't know it would happen that soon," Oliver said. "I tried to control my emotions.

"It was the same game I had played in high school and college and in Double-A; the major leaguers are just more patient, and if you fall behind they look for certain pitches in certain counts."

Big league hitters took advantage of the 23-year-old Oliver, saddling him with an 0-4 record and 7.36 ERA in five starts. As a result, he was demoted to Toledo in July.

"He got to the big leagues in a hurry, and like a lot of young pitchers he got knocked in the head a few times," pitching coach A.J. Sager said of Oliver's major-league experience. "When young pitchers get sent down after that, you're nervous how they are going to handle it when they get sent down.

"He handled it just fine. He learned the right things [from his time in the majors], and he was able to throw away the wrong things. He came down ready to learn and ready to work."

Oliver was just 22 years old last season, and Sager quickly saw why the native of Vermilion, Ohio, is considered one of the Tigers' top pitching prospects.

"When you first see him, you realize he's a lefthander with a good arm," Sager said of Oliver. "When you talk to him, you realize he has a good feel for pitching.

"Like a lot of young pitchers, he just needed to develop his secondary pitches."

Oliver finished with a 3-4 record and 3.23 ERA in nine Toledo starts. He got better in his time in Triple-A, posting a 2.61 ERA in six August starts for the Hens.

"When I got sent down, there were things that I wanted to work on down here," Oliver said. "Getting ahead of hitters was one thing. The other was throwing lower strikes.

"In the big leagues I was up in the zone, and it is easy for those hitters to get to those pitches -- it's right in their swing path."

Oliver continued to work in the off-season, and has been rewarded with a 2-0 record and 3.50 ERA in his first three starts this season.

"There were a couple of minor changes to my delivery that have made me more consistent in throwing strikes, giving me better command of my stuff," he said. "The start of spring training was very different from last year. I feel pretty comfortable now.

"I don't think my secondary stuff last year was as good as it is this year, and I'm commanding it better this year."

Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin, Oliver's manager in Erie last season, said the left-hander is different -- and better -- than he was with the SeaWolves a season ago.

"He's doing a lot of the things we wanted him to work on in the off-season," Nevin said. "We know he has a good fastball, but he needs to throw strikes with his secondary stuff.

"He's definitely done a better job of repeating his slider, and his slider has been improved over last year."

Nevin said the work Oliver has put into the game, both last season and in the off-season, has made him a better pitcher this year.

"He has made tremendous strides in a year," Nevin said. "He works very hard, and he's very open to learning every day.

"He takes his bullpen sessions very seriously, and he seems to improve from outing to outing."

Oliver allowed four hits and two runs in a no-decision at Louisville in the Hens' season opener, then surrendered just three hits and one run in six innings at Indianapolis April 12 to earn his first win of the season.

In his most-recent start, which came two days ago in Columbus, Oliver gave up just six hits but also walked three in six innings, and that turned into four runs in a game the Hens won 13-5.

Sager said the work Oliver has put into his secondary pitches has led to his early season success. "I think he commands the fastball down in the strike zone better, and his change-up and slider have become much more reliable," Sager said. "As a result, his confidence in those pitches has grown.

"He'll throw his secondary pitches behind in the count, and he's using them on both sides of the plate. He has made giant strides."

The improved secondary pitches have helped Oliver continue his impressive strikeout totals.

Last season he struck out 70 in just 77.1 inning in Erie, than fanned 18 in 22 innings with the Tigers. Oliver capped his season by fanning 49 in 53 innings with the Mud Hens.

In his first three starts this year Oliver has struck out six in Louisville, then eight in both Indianapolis and Columbus to give him an International League-leading 22 strikeouts in just 18 frames.

All those features -- his strikeouts, his improved command of his secondary pitches, and his willingness to work -- have Tigers fans dreaming of Oliver getting another call up to Detroit.

And while Oliver admits that is his dream, too, it's not something he said he spends a lot of time thinking about.

"[Getting called up to Detroit] is something I'm not really focused on," Oliver said. "You hear it, but if you get caught up in that and try to fulfill that, it takes the focus off what you're trying to accomplish and what you're trying to get done here."

NOTES: Tuesday the Mud Hens added catcher Max St-Pierre to the active roster. St-Pierre was on the temporarily inactive list to start the season to deal with a personal situation. He takes the place of catcher Omir Santos, who was promoted to Detroit when the Tigers put Victor Martinez on the disabled list. ... Tuesday's scheduled starters, lefty Justin Wilson (0-1, 4.50 ERA) for Indianapolis and Thad Weber (0-1, 2.45 ERA) for Toledo, are expected to start this morning's contest, the first of four scheduled School Celebration Days.

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com or 419-724-6481.



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