OAKLAND – There are 24 players getting ready inside the A’s clubhouse before every game, and then there’s the starting pitcher.
His routine is unique. For four days in a row, he watches the action from the dugout just as any fan would from the stands. Then on every fifth day, a starter suddenly becomes the most important player taking the field for his team. The manner in which he prepares himself in the hours leading up to his start can have a great impact on his performance.
“The personality side on the day you pitch is obviously going to be different than when you’re not pitching,” A’s pitching coach Curt Young said. “There’s anticipation, and there definitely is anxiety. I mean, we all know as starting pitchers, the day you’re pitching, it’s a different feeling. And a good feeling.”
Over the years, the A’s have had lots of pitchers with lots of different personalities make up their starting rotation, with each bringing a different game-day demeanor. Brandon McCarthy used to walk through the clubhouse stone-faced and silent, headphones on as he went through his preparation to get himself in the right frame of mind.
On the other end of the spectrum was Bartolo Colon, who showed the same goofy smile and sense of humor on his pitching days as he did any other. That sense of calm followed him out to the mound.
“Bartolo, I wouldn’t know if he gave up 30 runs in a game or if he was throwing a no-hitter,” A’s reliever Evan Scribner said. “(His demeanor) would be the same, and maybe that’s why he’s been pitching so long.”
The current rotation also features some contrasts in game-day personalities. There’s a consensus that ace Sonny Gray is the loosest of the bunch in the hours leading up to his start. See him make his way around the clubhouse, and it’s tough to decipher whether Gray is pitching or not if you haven’t seen the lineup card.
He chats freely with teammates around his locker. Before Monday’s start in Baltimore, Gray lounged on a couch inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Camden Yards, checking his iPad and joking with other players.
Gray has the ability to “flip the switch,” according to fellow starter Chris Bassitt, as first pitch draws near to channel his intensity. But in the hours before, he appears worry-free.
“He’s always the same – happy, go-lucky,” catcher Stephen Vogt said of Gray.
Some pitchers need to find outlets for their nervous energy on days they pitch.
Young, who made 155 starts for the A’s during his own playing career, relayed the routine of former teammate Bob Welch.
“He was all over the place,” Young said with a smile. “He told me he would even go run some wind sprints over on the Warriors court (at the arena next door) just to calm himself down.”
If anyone on the current A’s staff is similar, it’s Jesse Chavez, who says he would go bonkers if he stayed cooped up in the clubhouse ticking down the minutes until he begins warming up. Chavez is unique in that he wanders out to the A’s bench during batting practice and watches his teammates stretch, take their swings and shag flies. That’s a departure from most starters, who remain isolated in an empty clubhouse during batting practice.
There’s more to it than just calming his nerves, according to Chavez.
“I want to go out there and get an added motivation by watching the guys work,” he said. “They’ve already done their job to prepare for their day, so I need to go out there and make it happen. That’s what helps me focus every day when it’s my turn to start.”
Before every game, Young huddles with that day’s starting pitcher and catcher to go over a scouting report of the opponent. He even notices differences in that exercise. The session typically is short with Gray, who focuses more on his own game and how he wants to execute it. Rookie Kendall Graveman is more of a sponge, however, craving whatever information he can glean on an opposing hitter to develop a plan of attack.
Who’s the most intense pitcher leading up to his start? All votes go to Bassitt, even though the rookie has just eight starts with Oakland under his belt.
Bassitt said the butterflies start churning in his stomach the night before his start day. But that tells him that he’s getting mentally geared up in the right way.
“The night before, I don’t sleep that well,” Bassitt admitted. “Hopefully it never goes away. If it goes away, then I don’t know …”