For the balance of his time on the mound for the Braves — not to mention in the clubhouse — Kris Medlen has been a breath of fresh air, a little bit of California sunshine.
He starts a game? The Braves win. Quite a few people took notice last year when the Braves extended their streak to 23 straight regular season wins with Medlen on the mound, a major league record.
Really, Medlen was doing the same thing before he had Tommy John surgery in August of 2010 and just continued the trend after he recovered, when the Braves re-inserted him in the rotation halfway through last season. Entering 2013, the Braves were 26-4 in Medlen’s 30 career starts.
So it’s no wonder that he sustained a bit of a jolt when he started the season 1-5, despite a 3.44 ERA, over his first eight starts. Medlen takes the mound Tuesday night in Kansas City having improved his record to 4-7 overall with a 2.96 ERA.
“Sometimes it may look like I don’t care, but I do,” said Medlen, the Artesia, Calif., native that teammate Tim Hudson calls a free spirit. “In stressful times, I just laugh stuff off. But it was getting to me. I would come to the field in a bad mood. I’ve never ever done that.”
Medlen took a 5-1 loss in San Francisco May 12, after giving up three solo home runs to match his career-high and another two unearned runs on errors by Justin Upton and Dan Uggla.
One afternoon during the team’s next stop in Arizona, Medlen was running, doing some conditioning work with pitching coach Roger McDowell before a game, when Medlen started to unload. With McDowell as his sounding board, Medlen voiced his feelings that he needed to do more.
His usual pitching-to-contact mentality wasn’t doing the job. Maybe it was time to quit pounding the strike zone so much, to be finer, to strike more batters out.
A day or so later, Medlen found a printout from McDowell in his locker, an excerpt from the book “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” by late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman.
“I was focusing so much on my record, rather than just what I can control and that’s what that little piece was about,” said Medlen, who started to focus more on simply executing his pitches. “You can’t control whether the hitter is going to break his bat and get a base hit or if the shortstop makes an error. You worry about your job, which is executing that pitch.
“It just put things in perspective. I’m doing things the right way, staying true to myself and just being aggressive. Sure, I’m going to leave some balls down the middle. I feel like if I execute them, I should get some good results, eight, nine times out of 10.”
The Braves have won five of Medlen’s past seven starts since.
“He’s pitched as good as he did last year,” Hudson said. “And his won-loss record, the team’s won-loss record when he pitching, isn’t what people are accustomed to seeing. That’s the nature of the game. That’s how it is.”
Logic tells Medlen he couldn’t possibly have kept up the pace of last season, when he went 10-1 with 1.57 ERA, including 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA as a starter.
Yet a closer look at his 2013 numbers shows a pitcher who’s not that far off. His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is still solid at 1.27, compared to a microscopic 0.91 of last year, and his 2.96 ERA is still tied for 13th best in the National League.
“More guys are getting on base, but I’m getting out of it,” Medlen said. “So I’m making pitches when I have to.”
Admittedly, Medlen’s mechanics weren’t clicking his first few starts, especially with command of his inside pitches to left-handed hitters. He went through something similar early last season, struggling to get a feel and giving up two-strike hits. But he was pitching in the bullpen at the time, so it wasn’t quite as noticeable.
Complicating matters this season has been a lack of run support, which at 1.9 runs per game is lowest among Braves starters.
Still, for everything that went right last season, some of what Medlen has endured this season has been fluky. There was a start in Pittsburgh where the grounds crew drew up a crooked set of batter’s boxes, not good for a pitcher working through some command issues.
There have been defensive lapses behind him, like the grounder down the line by the Nationals’ Denard Span that third baseman Chris Johnson actually appealed to Major League Baseball to change from a double to an error. Two runs scored on the play in a 3-1 loss. (Johnson’s request was later denied).
In his most recent outing Wednesday against the Mets, Medlen somehow had the idea to go for a triple play instead of the more certain double play and threw away a ball to third base. Every coach he’s ever had cringed like manager Fredi Gonzalez did, behind the 1,000-yard stare he wore in the Braves dugout.
Two runs scored on the play and a game-tying three came in during the inning, though the Braves rallied to win 5-3. Medlen can laugh about the triple play try now.
“I’m an extremely positive thinker,” Medlen said. “I was thinking, ‘Damn, that would be sweet, like watch how cool this is going to be?’”
Ultimately, Medlen knows that positive attitude is going to serve him well. As for the negative? He can use that as a tool as well.
“You learn the most when you lose and you get beat down,” Medlen said. “In football, it’s: ‘I’m fast, I’m strong, I’m big. I’m going to be good.’ In baseball, I think it’s more internal, mental, heart, intestinal fortitude — that kind of stuff.”