In his 9th start of the season, Taylor Guerrieri spent three innings trying to find his way.
The outing was a rare miss, in what has otherwise been a strong campaign to recover from Tommy John surgery and return to form.
"I didn’t have command of any of my pitches. That was the worst it’s been all year," he admitted. "I walked four guys. It was a frustrating night to say the least. And it showed too. My body language was terrible. I was moping around out there."
It’s been a long, unexpected road for the righty since being drafted 1st round by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Spring Valley High School (South Carolina) in 2011. In addition to surgery, he was also suspended for testing positive for a banned drug of abuse, which isn’t classified as steroids-related.
All reports about his growth as a player and person have remained positive all year, and Charlotte Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns confirms that.
"I think everything that he went through last year forced him to grow up," said Johns. "The surgery and then the suspension coincided, and it was something he had to deal with on his own. He was dealing with it on his own in Port Charlotte, with no family around him. And you’re not really part of the team. I think he had to deal with that and understand this isn’t summer camp, this is professional baseball. He did what he had to do. He’s come a long way."
The process has been one that required full commitment on Guerrieri’s part. He had to put the work in, and thrived in his recovery from a lot of different kinds of support.
"Family was number one. They were there for me as they always have been. So that was first," Guerrieri said. "And also the guys in the training room said, ‘Stay positive and bust your butt.’ They taught me the rehab program and the work ethic it requires. I’m still doing all the same things. I’m treating everything like it’s a rehab."
That work includes a lot of side work, and changing the focus every day to work on something else, such as getting the curve ball in the zone, or keeping the change up down and away. In 37 innings this season he’s got a 2.68 ERA with 41 strikeouts . He’s walked 11 batters through 9 starts. The Stone Crabs clinched the South division of the Florida State League, securing their spot in the playoffs. While Guerrieri has been limited to 4 innings (Johns intimated before that game that Guerrieri might go 5 innings for the first time this season), each time he’s put in solid work in the innings allowed him.
"The consistency is really just coming from being healthy," Guerrieri said.
In 2012, he made his professional debut with the Hudson Valley Renegades, and he told a story about a piece of earthy advice that one coach gave him.
"That was one of our mental coaches, who would say, "Stand, look down at the rubber, let’s say this is the pebble," he said, while demonstrating, "Now take a deep breath…and just gather yourself," he paused then added, "I probably need to get back to that. I should’ve taken a second more in that last outing."
Now 22, Guerrieri’s deeper understanding of how to collect himself and be a better baseball player has developed amid a lot of attention. He was featured in Sports Illustrated in 2013, as part of a preview of the Rays future entitled ‘The Rays Way. That kind of attention can be tough to put into perspective, but he embraced it.
"I enjoyed it. It never felt like added pressure. Being a first round draft pick, there’s always going to be high expectation."
Since that early part of his career, Johns has seen Guerrieri develop his approach with hitters. Gone is the guy that relied on throwing heat. Quite simply, he’s learned how to pitch and have confidence in his other offerings.
"He’s been really good. He used to be a high velocity guy that tried to get it by everybody. He’ll get the velocity back, but the nature of the beast with Tommy John is that it takes maybe a year to get it fully back. He’s pitching 90-91, so now he’s sinking the ball and able to go to secondary stuff," Johns said. [Note: A scout at that night’s game said Guerrieri reached 93 mph, though, as mentioned, he wasn’t locating.]
After a difficult night, and reflecting on having that spotlight on him in such a big way, Guerrieri’s goals have changed a little bit for the moment. They’re narrowed to two.
"Make every single start. Stay off the disabled list."
In his 10th start of the season, Taylor Guerrieri pitched five innings without issuing a walk or a run, and earned his first win as a starter in two years and twenty days. The Rays Way must be leading in the right direction. Many thanks to Jessica for her reporting.