April 3, 2007
By Norm Maves Jr.
There's such a thing, Larry Casian reasons, as overcomplicating the act of throwing a baseball.
"I try to teach that your stuff is good enough to get the batter out. That you're the right guy in the right place," the University of Portland's new pitching coach said the other day.
"If you're consistent with your mechanics, everything else will be fine."
So the science of pitching baseball games is no longer an upper level engineering course at UP. It isn't even a lower-level science credit.
It's more like a remedial course. The way Casian teaches Pilots pitchers, he's not descending from a mountaintop like some kind of oracle -- or, in his case, a guy with nine years' experience with five major league teams. He's just reminding them of stuff they already know.
"We all expected him to teach us something wise about pitching," Pilots closer Josh Roberts said about his first impression of the former major league pitcher. "But with him, it's just the basics: Get the batter out."
Pretty simple, but the results have been good.
The Pilots staff has allowed an average of 4.93 earned runs per game. It's not ideal, but consider the ERA posted last season by the Pilots staff: 6.47.
"He just instilled in us right away that you have to believe you can win," said Pilots starter Given Kutz, whose 14-strikeout, complete-game shutout of Utah last week won him the West Coast Conference pitcher of the week award. "You have to. And you can see it with every pitcher who goes out there.
"He just brings a whole new level of experience that none of us ever knew. It's awesome."
UP coach Chris Sperry picked Casian up from Corban College in Salem, where he was the head coach the past two years and the pitching coach for six years before that.
But it's what Casian did before that that makes Pilots pitchers sit up and listen: He made it to the major leagues. He lived the big-league life, made the big-league money and traveled in big-league jets.
With what? Not much. Casian was 6 feet and 170 pounds at his biggest and never did develop the untouchable fastball you're supposed to have at that level.
"I made it because I was able to throw four pitches for strikes," he said. "Fastball, curve ball, slider, change -- any time. It didn't matter what the count was. If I was down in the count, I could still throw whatever pitch I wanted into the strike zone.
"That kind of consistency kept me in the big leagues."
Casian, a left-hander, was a Twins draftee (sixth round, 1987) who pitched games for Minnesota, Cleveland, the Cubs, Royals and White Sox. He had an 11-13 record and a 4.56 ERA for his career, which went a whole lot farther than anybody who he grew up with in Lakewood, Calif., expected it to.
"I was 130 pounds when I got out of high school," said Casian, who as a Twins farmhand also pitched for the Portland Beavers. "In college I weighed 150-155. But I didn't miss a start until I got to the big leagues.
"I was teased like crazy about how skinny I was. Oh, here's that skinny little guy out there and he can't do a thing. Then you look at the game and the scoreboard and most of the time I got the victory.
"I don't think it's being conceited. I really believed my stuff was good enough."
If a player with the physical limits of Casian can make it to the show, Pilots pitchers have reasoned, they can at least win college baseball games.
"On road trips," said Roberts, who is 6-5 and 230 pounds, "we always ask him about the major leagues -- the whole 'Bull Durham' thing. He says he didn't throw hard, but he threw strikes with every single pitch he had. He knew he was not going to lose.
"He tells us that, and we believe him."
It's not all one big head game. Casian also tinkers with throwing motions. Kutz, for instance, missed the 2006 season with an injury and came back with an annoying habit.
"My stride was too long," he said, "so when I threw my slider I didn't have a downward angle.
So he shortened my stride, got me on top of the ball."
Yet another Casian-ism is the idea that you have to throw what you throw. You're not always going to have your best stuff, but when it's your turn, you have to fight your way through the problem and throw.
"You can get too deep into scouting reports," he said. "You have to pitch your game. If you find a team that can't hit the curve and you're a fastball-slider guy, you're not going to make up an off-speed pitch, are you?
"So you just throw what you have. And the way I look at it is, 'Well, you haven't hit my curve,' or 'you haven't hit my slider.' "
So far, the Pilots are buying into it.
"There isn't a guy on this staff," Roberts said, "who doesn't believe he's helped each one of us."