Inside Pitch: Astros' Oswalt rebounds
Early-season struggles forgotten after dominating potent Phils
Opinions as to the cause of Houston ace Roy Oswalt's struggles were as numerous as the baseball people you asked.
Oswalt wondered if he was tipping pitches.
Astros manager Cecil Cooper blamed location.
A National League scout suggested Oswalt was overstriding on his delivery.
Maybe they were all wrong.
The right-hander put the worst start of his career behind him on Wednesday night with a vintage Oswalt performance against Philadelphia -- seven innings, five hits, one earned run -- in a 2-1 Houston victory.
"Roy was, for me, vintage Roy today," Cooper said. "He kept the ball down, had a nice breaking ball and his fastball was crisp. He pitched real well.
"He kept the ball down when he had to. He hit his spots real good. He had a nice breaking ball. He didn't have a breaking ball in his last three outings this year. Tonight he had it. I thought his fastball was real crisp. I thought he did a real good job. He was impressive, especially late in the game. He was kind of like one of those racehorses where late in the game, you could smell it. I thought he reached back a few times and pitched well."
So what happened between Friday, when Oswalt was shelled by Florida for a career-high four home runs, and Wednesday, when he put the clamps on one of the best lineups in baseball in their hitter-friendly haven?
A scout who watched Oswalt's two previous starts as well as Wednesday's said the difference was his curveball.
"He didn't have it [in his second and third starts] but he did [against Philadelphia]," the scout said. "When he has that curve working and locates his fastball, he can be dominating, and that's what you saw [against the Phillies]."
Oswalt has a fastball that routinely registers as high as 95 mph on the radar gun. He also has a slider and changeup, the latter coming in about 12 mph or more slower than his fastball. Add in his 12-to-6 curveball and you have an effective pitcher. Oswalt has been such a pitcher since he arrived in the Major Leagues in 2001. His 112 wins since then lead the NL. He has won 69 games over the last four seasons.
The 0-3 start for the three-time All-Star raised the question of whether the 31-year-old may have lost something from his arsenal. But it was clear on Wednesday that that wasn't the case.
"After the first inning, I knew it wasn't popping out of my hand like my last start," Oswalt said. "I had a real good line of delivery on it and felt real good. Hopefully, I turned it around. I felt better. I wasn't overthrowing. I feel when I have my curveball, I should be able to get to the eighth or ninth inning."
A scout who has watched two of Oswalt's earlier outings believes Oswalt was overstriding in his delivery during those starts, and that could explain why his curveball wasn't as reliable. That would also explain why Oswalt's velocity wasn't down.
"He's also been a guy who overstrides, but this year it just looked a little more pronounced to me," the scout said. "When you're off like that, it hurts control."
Whatever the cause, Oswalt's biting curveball is back, much to the relief of the Astros.
Sometimes, when a dominating pitcher struggles, he can have a more difficult time regaining his form than a less-gifted pitcher because he is unused to problems and thus has never had to find a remedy. This kind of struggle was new territory for Oswalt. Fortunately, he found the solution.
Not everyone does.
Oswalt's former teammate Brad Lidge was practically unhittable when he first came up. When Lidge finally struggled, it was a stunning development and one for which Lidge didn't have any answers.
Lidge made it back and is closing games again these days for the Phillies.
"Look at Brad Lidge," Cooper said. "Remember everybody was wondering, 'What's wrong with Brad? You heard all kinds of opinions, but you know what was wrong with Lidge? Nothing."
Count Cooper among the growing number of Hanley Ramirez fans.
"They've got some very good hitters on that team, like [Dan] Uggla, Jeremy Hermida and [Mike] Jacobs, but [Ramirez] really scares the daylights out of me," Cooper said the day after Ramirez crushed a long home run off Oswalt. "There's no way to pitch to that guy. No matter where you pitch him, he hits it hard."
Cooper agreed with the notion that Ramirez would be a 100-RBI player if he were hitting in the middle of the order.
"Absolutely, he's got that kind of ability in my opinion," Cooper said. "But he's also an excellent guy to have at the top of the order with his tools."
Ramirez could wind up hitting third or fourth at some point down the road, but for now, he's too valuable as the Marlins' leadoff man to be moved.
Cooper takes exception to those who disparaged Miguel Tejada's defense after the Astros acquired the veteran shortstop from Baltimore.
Tejada isn't in the class defensively of the man he replaced, Adam Everett, but he's made several sparkling defensive plays and has committed just one error. Houston's .994 team fielding percentage (entering Wednesday night's games) was tied with Kansas City for the best in the Major Leagues.
"Miggy has been outstanding, contrary to what everybody thinks, that he'd lost a step or whatever, he has been terrific. He's made all the plays," Cooper said. "He's made some super plays up the middle. Miggy has played terrific. Our defense has been really good. Guys have played well, I think it's what you put into it and in the early part of the spring we've put a lot of work on our defense and I think it's paying off."
The hardest swing in baseball? One NL scout doesn't think that distinction goes to Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels or the Tigers' Gary Sheffield. "Rick Ankiel swings as hard as anybody I've seen the last couple of years," the scout said of the St. Louis outfielder. "He really cranks it up. As hard as he swings, he still makes enough contact where I think he'll hit for average and obviously give them some pop."
Ankiel struck out 13 times in his first 53 at-bats, but also hit .302 with a .351 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage with a team-high four home runs and 32 total bases.
Milwaukee third baseman Bill Hall has gone back to wearing contact lenses this season after not wearing them for the last three seasons. Hall has 20/15 vision with corrective lenses. Without them, he has to squint to see the baseball.
Without contacts, Hall hit 35 home runs two years ago. Last year, he batted .254 with 14 home runs. With the contacts, he's already hit five homers this season.
"Now, when I take my contacts out at night I'm like, 'Why did I ever not wear them?'" Hall said. "Maybe that was my problem last year."
Hall said he plans to have Lasik eye surgery after the season.
Casey Kotchman of the Angels is off to the best start of his career. The 24-year-old first baseman is batting .352 with four homers and 10 RBIs (entering play Wednesday). He's already hit twice as many homers this month in 54 at bats than he did in 151 career April at-bats prior to this year. Kotchman's career average for April entering the season was .219.
"He's putting it all together," one scout said. "You could seem him coming on last year. He's got the smooth swing, good eye, and has had enough time to figure out how [opposing pitchers] are going to pitch him. He's got all the tools and he's surrounded by great hitters. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a big year."
Life is beautiful in Arizona these days. The Diamondbacks are tied with St. Louis for the best record in the National League at 11-4 after Wednesday, Randy Johnson is back and the team just secured center fielder Chris Young's services through at least 2013.
Young signed a $28 million extension that includes a club option for 2014. The contract buys out all of Young's arbitration years and his first year of free agency and possibly the second if the option is exercised. Young received a $1 million signing bonus and will make $1.75 million in 2009, $3.25 million in '10, $5 million in '11, $7 million in '12, $8.5 million in 13. The club option for '14 is for $11 million with a $1.5 million buyout if the option is not exercised.
"You're always trying to identify core players and he's certainly one," Arizona GM Josh Byrnes said. "He's an unbelievably talented player, but we wouldn't have done a contract like this unless we believed in the person. Getting to know C.Y. the last few years, he's smart, he's determined, he's genuine, a great person to have on a team as we try to win championships here."
The D-backs have secured the services of several of their core players beyond next season as Young becomes the fifth player they have under contract through the '10 season, counting options. Eric Byrnes' three-year extension signed last year runs through 2010, while the team has options on Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Chad Tracy for 2010.
Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan has done it again. When the Cardinals signed Kyle Lohse on March 14, some wondered whether Lohse -- who missed most of Spring Training -- could contribute. And Lohse hasn't exactly been a quick starter over the years. But after working with Duncan, the one-year $4.25 million deal the Cards handed the 29-year-old right-hander is looking like a bargain at this point.
In three starts, Lohse is 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA to help the Cards get off to a fast start. Lohse was 9-12 with a 4.62 ERA for Cincinnati and Philadelphia last year.
"He's using his breaking ball's a lot more effectively, and his stuff looks better than it was last year," said one scout. "That's Duncan for you. He'll take a guy other teams have given up on and win with him."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.