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Strong start is important to Iannetta

January 12, 2011

Chris Iannetta

Some baseball notes geared to make you forget those snow removal blues …

There’s no question Chris Iannetta is bent on staying sharp during the offseason. The St. Raphael Academy alum is renown around the R.I. Baseball Institute for having a set routine and hating to deviate from it. In fact, it wouldn’t come as a shock to learn Iannetta possesses a key to the indoor batting cage, located in Warwick.
Yet in response to his biggest pitfall in his young and still developing career, one has to wonder: Is there a direct correlation between the approach Iannetta takes during baseball’s winter solstice and the slow starts that have become all-too common for the Colorado catcher?
Iannetta mapped out his habitual and all-encompassing offseason regimen following a batting practice session Tuesday. It’s by design, he says, so that by the time he departs for Tucson, AZ next month, he’s where he needs to be when spring training opens.
The strict timeline gets cranking, “by the middle of October. I get back into lifting and start taking some swings around that time. I didn’t start throwing until mid-December and then I start working on the baseball skills after January 1. You just try to build a foundation and get healthy from all the bumps and bruises you have throughout the course of the year.”
Told the startup date seemed a little soon after the season is over, Iannetta responded, “I didn’t need a break. (Last year) was really a bad year and I wanted to get working towards something positive as opposed to dwelling on (2010).”
Last season may have been the most trying of Iannetta’s big-league tenure. After struggling through early April and losing the Rockies’ starting catcher’s job to Miguel Olivo, the Cumberland native was demoted to the minor leagues on April 27. The parting words by manager Jim Tracy –“I see uncertainty in his body language” – probably didn’t sit very well with Iannetta as he shuffled off to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Iannetta returned to the Rockies in mid-June, receiving playing time in dribs and drabs the rest of the season as Tracy chose to stick by Olivo, who wound up a midseason all-star. Iannetta finished with a .197 batting average in 188 at-bats, numbers certainly not befit of someone signed to a three-year, $8.35 million deal in Dec. 2009.
“Obviously it was miserable and I have no one to blame but myself,” Iannetta said. “I just didn’t get the job done.”
The underlining, overriding issue with Iannetta has always been his first-month woes at the plate. He’s paid a steep price as a result, either being farmed out (that also happened in August 2007) or watching his presumed understudy grab the reins and not relinquish them. The Rockies have tried to stand by the person they believe has the skill set of a No. 1 catcher, but too often the club has witnessed Iannetta dig himself in so deep a hole that Colorado has no choice but to go with the Yorvit Torrealbas and Olivos of the world.
Lifetime he’s a .199 hitter in March/April, batting over .200 just once (.324 in 11 games in 2008). The rest of the time he’s struggled to the tunes of .158 (2007), .174 (2009) and 2010 (.133).
“It’s a dynamic situation because a lot of aspects play into it, whether you’re not playing for a while, the weather (in Colorado during April) or getting your timing back,” said Iannetta, no doubt weary about being asked over and over about his penchant for his lagging skills out of the chute.
That brings us back to Iannetta’s offseason habits. Yes, being a professional athlete is his job, but even the person typing away at a cubicle from 9-5 every day takes some time to recharge the batteries. From what Iannetta described, breaks are few and far between. It’s understandable he wants to get rid of the bad taste of the previous season, but the hundreds of swings he takes in January will be a distant memory once opening day rolls around.
Iannetta could probably go out and play a real game today thanks to his relentless desire to not let the offseason become a time for vegging out. The 27-year-old spent the closing stages of Tuesday’s workout simulating counts while taking cuts against batting practice pitching. That tells you that he’s always in pure baseball mode, regardless if it’s snowing or sunny, January or April.
Perhaps taking some time off and not even think about hitting or throwing a baseball until after Thanksgiving is the answer. Revving things up then would still allow Iannetta plenty of time to apply enough of a base so that he doesn’t go into spring training cold. Many ballplayers will tell you spring training is long enough anyway, but at the same time it would allow players such as Iannetta enough days and weeks to iron out the remaining kinks, such as familiarizing himself with the pitching staff and facing live pitching.
Certainly it’s too late to start deviating from what is set in stone. Yet if Iannetta doesn’t break free from his April doldrums in 2011, then it might be time to come up with a new offseason game plan, one geared toward making sure he doesn’t peak too soon.
“I have a ton of confidence in myself and know I can do it,” said Iannetta in closing. “All the preparation is behind me once the season starts, which is when you put it into work.”

Any room for Bowden?

When Michael Bowden departed for Venezuela in late November, Boston’s bullpen consisted of Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Tim Wakefield and Scott Atchison. By the time Bowden returned stateside earlier this month, nary a relief spot was to be found. The additions of headliners Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, coupled with the signings of Rich Hill and Hideki Okajima and the trades of Andrew Miller and Lenny DiNardo, helped Bowden resign to the fact that he probably won’t be competing for a spot come spring training.
“They’re doing what they need to do in order to win a championship,” said Bowden via phone earlier this week. “Unfortunately for me, it makes it a lot harder to get an opportunity. Yeah, it’s a little frustrating, but you’ve got keep working. I’m going to continue to remain patient and worry about what I can worry about.”
Bowden’s time in the Venezuelan Winter League – 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in nine innings that featured seven walks and six strikeouts for the Magallanes club – allowed the 24-year-old to further his education as a relief pitcher. Halfway through the 2010 season, he was transitioned from a starter to relief. With the Boston rotation seemingly set in stone for the next few years, Bowden came to grips that relieving is where his best opportunity with the organization lies.
Now that he has a stint in Venezuela under his belt coupled with 29 relief outings between Pawtucket and Boston, Bowden feels at ease that he can handle any situation.
“Not only was it about getting more repetitions out of the bullpen and getting even more acclimated to the reliever’s role, but I was able to fine-tune some things,” said Bowden, noting he experimented with a cutter, a pitch that wanted to see how it would play out in an intense environment. “I could experiment, but I also had to be competitive. It was the best of both worlds.
“They play different baseball down (in Venezuela). I would come in for one or two batters, which is something I’m not used to. It was hard for me to get a mindset that, ‘This is my one batter I would face.’ That gave me good experience as far as that goes,” Bowden went on. “Overall I was able to learn a lot and apply a lot of things.”
Said Red Sox director of player personnel Mike Hazen, “Pitching in (Venezuela) and in the role he was in, it was akin to a real professional setting where you’re feeling pressure every single night. We never put too much stock in the performance itself because it’s an odd time of year. Players aren’t really used to pitching around Christmas time so to speak, but the experience should help him as he moves into this season.”
If there’s any sort of comfort Bowden can take heading into 2011, it’s that he figures to become the first option looked at should anyone in Boston’s bullpen falter or suffer injury.
“I’m very comfortable in the role and have a very good foundation,” he said. “I have a good routine and can warm up quickly. I feel like I know my job when I go in there. Now it’s a matter of applying it consistently.”

It’s about time

Greg Gagne admits he had a hard time wrapping his head around the notion that it took former Twins teammate Bert Blyleven 14 tries to get into the Hall of Fame.
“My reaction is that I was very happy for him because I thought it was long overdue,” said Gagne, a Somerset, Mass. native and a veteran of 15 MLB seasons. “He should have been in before this, but for some reason he wasn’t.”
Gagne’s career intersected with Blyleven’s between 1985-88. The pair were part of the 1987 Minnesota squad that went on to capture the World Series in seven games.
“It’s a great honor and he deserves it,” said Gagne, the former head baseball coach at Bishop Feehan. “He was a great guy and a great teammate. He was a clown, but when it came time to play baseball, he was out there giving it 100 percent. I felt fortunate to play with Bert because I remember having him on baseball cards while I was growing up in the 70s.”

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