Pitcher Perfect

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Across the room in the plush Diamondbacks clubhouse, 31-year-old Dominican Republic native Miguel Batista quotes Solomon, Socrates and Einstein (a photo of the latter hangs prominently in his locker) before offering his own philosophy of the art of pitching.

"Baseball is a tough game," he says softly. "When you're up here in the big leagues, your mechanics should be fine. The coach should only have to do a little of this and a little of that. It's more about learning how to be smart, about recognizing game situations, about giving your team a chance to win when you don't have nothing. Everybody can pitch good when you have your best stuff."

Batista gestures to the corner where Johnson and Schilling are sitting in front of their lockers. "Look at those guys. They're better than they've ever been, but not just because they're fast as lightning, overpowering. That won't help you if the pitch is in the wrong place."

Johnson and Schilling, of course, are the heart and soul of the D-Backs staff. It's no secret that the team surely would founder if either got injured, rather than having a bonafide chance of repeating as champions.

Then there's Byung-Hyun Kim, the boyish Korean relief pitcher with the oddball sweeping delivery. Kim endured never-to-be-forgotten horrors in last year's World Series but seems to have survived with his psyche intact (it helps that he hung on last week for a save against the hated New York Yankees). There's Batista, who continues to be quietly effective as a starter when the team needs him most, and Brian Anderson, the rock 'n' rolling southpaw with a rubber arm and a heart that too often seems larger than his ability to keep opponents at bay.

Another starter is new Diamondback Rick Helling, who until recently had been getting shelled like a batting-practice pitcher instead of a $3 million-a-year free agent signee.

Kniffin also tends to veteran relief pitchers Mike Myers, Greg Swindell and the ubiquitous Mike Morgan, who have appeared in more than 1,600 major-league games between them.

"Kniff had to deal with not getting a chance, never getting to reach his dream," says Morgan, a 42-year-old who celebrated the 24th anniversary of his first major-league appearance last week by shutting out the Yankees for a few innings.

"For him to finally get up here at the age of 51 has got to be a thrill. He's got to deal with all kinds of personalities, all kinds of situations, and he's doing fine. As for me, I don't need a lot of motivation from someone else — I've got it, or I'd have been out of baseball years ago. Chuck knows that."

Like all major-league teams, the Diamondbacks are trying to cope with a serious lack of pitching depth. The 30 franchises employ about 380 pitchers (including those on the injured list), and there just aren't enough good hurlers to be found.

For example, the D-Backs recently shipped two healthy but ineffective relief pitchers — Jose Parra and Cuban-born lefty Eddie Oropesa — to its Triple-A team in Tucson. Replacing the pair were young right-handers Mike Koplove and Bret Prinz.

Koplove pitched well for the Diamondbacks late last year, until a panicky outing in an important game against the Los Angeles Dodgers cost his team a game. Manager Bob Brenly has yet to put him in such a precarious situation this year.

Prinz is a strapping 25-year-old who started the season with the D-Backs, got sent down, then worked his way back to Phoenix. But he proved not to be an answer, getting pounded time and again — including the devastating late-inning grand slam he gave up in Yankee Stadium on June 10. (The Diamondbacks shipped Prinz back to the minors after that game, not even waiting for the road trip to end two days later.)

Most members of the D-Backs staff, however, are seasoned, mature veterans. Mike Myers, a 32-year-old, side-arming lefty, has pitched in more than 70 games in each of the last six seasons — a major-league record.

"I haven't been in a funk yet this season, so Chuck hasn't had to pump me up much," says Myers, knocking on an imaginary piece of wood. "He noticed a few technical things in spring training — I was dropping down a little too fast — that no one else would notice. A pitching coach can't come in and suggest massive changes, because that's not going to fly.

"A lot of it is knowing the personalities of the players. For example, if a coach comes out to the mound and flat jumps into me for not doing this or that, I'll get pissed off, wait 'til he gets finished, then go, 'You about done? Let me pitch.' My definition of a bad pitching coach is one who's your best friend when things are going well, but you can't find him when things are bad. I've had a couple of those. I started to play this game because of desire and passion. Still have it. Same with Chuck."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin