Aug. 11, 2006
By Rick Hurd
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Note: Noah Lowry was an All-American for Pepperdine in 2001 and is currently a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.
San Francisco, Calif. - The riffs from an electric guitar pierce the headphones as the young man wearing the iPod settles into his chair. The pace is furious, the sound hard. The adrenaline, already flowing freely inside of Noah Lowry, receives an additional jolt.
"I'll listen to Guns N' Roses, Metallica, AC/DC. Anything with a hard edge like that," he says. "You want to be pumped up, but not too pumped up, and listening to it gets me right where I want to be."
Where Lowry finds himself on this Thursday night (July 20) is alone in the Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park. He will toe the rubber as the starting pitcher against the San Diego Padres in less than two hours, and the isolation he experiences as the rest of his teammates participate in batting practice is as welcome as the proper feel on one of his changeups.
This is, after all, a pass-fail exam. Lowry will take at least 30 of them during the course of a normal season -- his next one comes tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers -- and as such, he has honed his preparation to the last detail.
He has slept exactly 10 hours -- "No more, no less," he says -- and turned off his cell phone to keep away distractions. He has arrived at 3 o'clock for a 7:15 p.m. first pitch, and the headphones were donned almost immediately upon his arrival.
He already has glanced at the Padres lineup and made a trip to the video room, where he's been reviewing recent at-bats by the hitters he'll try to retire in a few hours. He is armed with written notes from a meeting conducted by pitching coach Dave Righetti, as well as visual evidence detailing the tendencies and weaknesses of the opponents.
He is ready to "treat every pitch as if it's a 0-0 game, and go as hard as I can for as long as I can."
Lowry has, in short, completed a preparatory class that's taken four days to complete. It has required running and weight work, video review and study sessions. It has required time in the batting cages and time in the trainer's room.
All that's left is the test.
"I believe that after a start, a pitcher should want to go home and just sleep. That means you've gotten everything out of it you possibly can," he says. "What you don't want is to walk off that mound and say, 'What just happened?'"
The Times monitored closely just what happened during the four days leading up to Lowry's start against the Padres on July 20. He earned his fourth win of the season and tossed a shutout into the ninth inning, but that hardly told the whole story:
DAY 1: SUNDAY, JULY 16
The whole story actually begins the previous afternoon. It has been a lousy one for Lowry, and as he breaks it down with catcher Todd Greene, he eyes a pack of media several feet away. He spits a wad of tobacco juice in anger.
"I was mad at myself, because as a starting pitcher, you're out there only once every five days," he says. "The mentality is that you want to be out there as long as you can. ... But some days, you're just not going to be able to make the adjustments that you need to make."
This had been one of those days. Lowry lasted just 3ª innings and yielded six runs in a loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, a performance so unimpressive that manager Felipe Alou opined that there was "no life to his pitches."
But as a new day dawns, Lowry doesn't seem down. His mechanics had been a mess Saturday, but he pinpointed the flaws while examining video after his early exit. Correcting them with Righetti and bullpen coach Mark Gardner will be one of the primary goals over the next four days.
Another one will be the treatment of a small blister he has developed on his right foot.
"The first thing we do after every start is take an inventory," Giants head trainer Stan Conte says. "You want to make sure a guy doesn't have any hot spots, which we call any soreness that is not 'typical soreness.' That's what makes the first day so important. Guys are working out the typical soreness that they feel, and as that process takes place, we formulate a game plan for the next four or five days."
For now, the game plan calls for Lowry to hop aboard a stationary bike for a 20-minute ride that "gets the blood going," he says. He has arrived at the park shortly after 8 a.m. for a 1 p.m. start, and he'll spend at least two hours working out the lactic acid that's settled into his muscles.
He will use lighter weights and do heavy repetition on a set of leg exercises that includes squats, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf extensions and step-ups. Next comes a set of exercises -- crunches, side-toe touches, and alternate leg crunches, among others -- that work the core, the area from the knees to the chest that Lowry says "should be the strongest, because that's the area pitchers use the most."
Then comes another 20-minute ride on the stationary bike, this time to cool down. Gradually, the soreness is starting to subside.
"The first day is real important," Righetti says. "If a pitcher doesn't start to work out that soreness, then it's probably going to stick with him and affect him the next time he goes out there."
DAY 2: MONDAY, JULY 17
For Lowry, the soreness never was much of a concern, and by now, he's feeling close to normal. To pitch professionally is to learn to live with a range of discomfort that will disappear only when the season ends.
But a bout with mechanical failure? That's something that can keep a guy up nights.
Thus the reason Lowry is having a tough time containing his enthusiasm. During a bullpen session, Lowry has identified his mechanical flaws -- "They're something so small and detailed that I'm not sure anybody would understand it even if I tried to explain it," he says -- and is convinced the problem is solved.
"I got together with Righetti and Gardner, and we ... were able to see (the flaw) on video and figure out a game plan to fix it," Lowry says. "Then you go to it. You correct the flaw when you throw, and then you work on repeating it. Even when you're not on the mound and throwing, you try to repeat it."
Mechanics are vital for any pitcher, but to Lowry they are especially so. He will never light up a radar gun with his velocity. He needs movement and excellent pitch location. He has struggled to achieve both consistently this season.
"We need that consistency from him," Alou says. "This is a guy who has the ability to be a top pitcher on any staff."
Perhaps this is a start in that direction. Lowry says he has thrown for about 20 minutes, using all four of his pitches -- fastball, changeup, curveball and slider -- with his focus on the feel of his delivery. It is a difficult trick, teaching your muscles new memory, but it's something that is required.
"You have to be able to adjust on the fly," he says. "At this level, that's what it's about. I wasn't able to adjust in my last start, and that's what frustrated me so much."
That said, Lowry took some comfort in knowing his previous outing hadn't gone to pieces from a lack of effort. Righetti says Lowry is regularly among the first to the ballpark.
Today is another example. Lowry arrived in the clubhouse at 2 p.m., more than five hours before the first pitch. He ran several sprints -- three 100-yard dashes, six 60-yard dashes and six 30-yard dashes -- then hit the weight room for an upper body workout that includes bench presses, various back and shoulder exercises and biceps curls. Then he repeats the core work from the previous day.
When he finishes, it's out to the batting cage for work on his bunting. Lowry has not bunted well this season, he acknowledges, and he says he is working constantly to improve.
"It's something I pay a lot of attention to, because it's something that can keep you in the game, and it can get you some runs," he says. "Obviously, everybody loves to hit in this game, but I consider anything I do as a hitter a bonus. But bunting is part of the job when you pitch in the National League, and it's one of the most important things we do."
DAY 3: TUESDAY, JULY 18
Running, too, is one of the most important things Lowry will do. Also one of the most tedious.
But today is different. Several hours before the first pitch, Lowry is hustling along the outfield grass with a soccer ball at his feet. Fellow Giants starters Matt Morris and Matt Cain are with him.
"It's an easy way to get our running in," Lowry says. "Let's face it, running isn't necessarily a fun thing to do. So anything you can do to add some fun, I'm all for it."
The game gives Lowry a chance to test his blistered foot, but it also provides another benefit. Lowry says it's an opportunity to further the camaraderie among members of the pitching staff and a chance for those in the same line of work to share some of their observations.
"I'm open to any kind of constructive criticism I can get," he says. "What's nice is that this is a tight-knit group here. We don't harp on one another. We try to help each other out. We've got some veteran guys, and they've got a lot of things to offer. I've talked to Matt Morris about pitch selection and why certain pitches might work in certain counts to certain guys. That type of stuff is really important."
So is other stuff. Lowry says he tries to sleep between eight and 10 hours a night on the nights before he doesn't pitch. He feasts on lots of smaller meals that are heavy in protein -- "A lot of fish," he says -- and mostly steers clear of fatty foods.
He works his core muscles each day, something he did even before pulling an oblique muscle in his first start of 2006. He combines that with his other muscle work, which on Day 3 includes a repeat of the lower-body workout that took place on Day 1.
But one thing he does not do is think too much about what awaits him in 48 hours.
"You don't want to overthink a start," he says. "You don't want to overthink a situation, and you don't want to overthink hitters. ... You have to trust that what you're doing is going to work because if it didn't work, you wouldn't be here."
DAY 4: WEDNESDAY, JULY 19
Lowry arrived in the major leagues relatively quickly. He opted to attend Pepperdine University after being drafted in the 19th round by the Texas Rangers in 1999, and two years later, the Giants made him their top choice.
Lowry got his first taste of the majors in September 2003, then established himself by going 6-0 after an August promotion in 2004.
But life in the majors is rarely easy, and 2006 has been a struggle. The oblique muscle strain forced Lowry to the disabled list for the first time in his career and kept him sidelined a month. He's been playing catch-up ever since; he still hasn't won consecutive starts.
"With the injury, it's been tough to get in a groove," he says. "But it's starting to come around for me."
So are his thoughts about the opposing lineup. Lowry says he begins the mental preparation for the Padres shortly after he completes a "very light" upper-body workout. He will watch today's game against the Milwaukee Brewers from the dugout, but his mind will be reviewing the hitters he's likely to face Thursday.
"Ninety percent of it is mental," he says of being a starting pitcher in the majors. "Everybody at this level has what it takes physically, or they wouldn't be here. It's about controlling what you do physically by staying in the right mental state."
Lowry stays at the park until the game ends -- he leaves early only if he's starting a day game after a night game -- and then tries to get to sleep as early as he can. After his 10 hours of sleep, he'll fuel up with a light sandwich the next morning, then head to the park.
"You work your butt off for four or five days, and it's all geared toward this," he says. "If that doesn't give you some butterflies, something's wrong."
DAY 5: WEDNESDAY, JULY 20
Turns out, nothing is wrong in Lowry's start against the Padres. He scatters eight hits in a 9-3 win while striking out six, pitches into the ninth inning for the first time since the previous August, and yes, even drops down a sacrifice bunt.
Afterward, he concludes a series of arm exercises designed by renowned arm surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe, addresses the media, then heads home. He needs his sleep.
His next start is only six days away.