One of the biggest reasons why right-hander Richie Mirowski is pitching in Arizona Fall League now is a spring training introduction.
Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams liked what he was seeing from the 24-year-old Mirowski and knew he was close to making a big step. Williams introduced Mirowski to Double-A pitching coach Paul Menhart to help with some fine-tuning on his most important pitch.
"In spring, Spin Williams introduced me to Paul Menhart," Mirowski said.
"(Williams) told Menhart, 'Kid has got a really good curveball, but he tends to walk some more guys than we like to see.'
"Normally, that was my two-seam (fastball) - I couldn't establish it for a strike. I would always run it out of the zone. Menhart was just like, 'You mean, you are having difficulties with it, not that you can't.' "
Mirowski said Menhart's words changed his whole mentality about that pitch. And with less pressure to throw his fastball for strikes, he was then able to concentrate on building confidence in his curveball.
"I guess from then on I started pitching towards contact and not shying away from the plate, not being afraid to throw it there," Mirowski said. "I had some outings in the spring where I was having some solid innings and I could go to my curveball because it was low pitch count innings. They wanted to see that pitch. But in a game situation, it was hard to want to go to it right away.
"So they asked me how many curveballs I threw that inning. I said maybe one or two. They wanted me to throw three times that next inning. They wanted to see my curveball because I wasn't showing it that much. That was one of the biggest things they liked my curveball."
Mirowski then was surprised to see a difference in his split-finger fastball.
"I always threw the split that I throw," Mirowski said. "But when they saw me this year, it was the best thing I had going for me. Now I was using my curveball as a get ahead pitch or first pitch. (Then) I was using my split (finger) as my strikeout (pitch)."
Mirowski used this formula to advance from high Single-A Potomac to Double-A Harrisburg. It all culminated with a lethal split-finger.
"During my time in Potomac, that was my go-to for everything," Mirowski said. "I think I just developed the feel for it and the confidence where I could throw it here and there and use it as an out pitch. That was the same thing I used when I got to Harrisburg."
The numbers were stunning. Mirowski combined to go 10-3 with a 1.83 ERA between Single-A and Double-A in 2013. In 45 games and 68 2/3 innings, Mirowski had 88 strikeouts and only 15 walks.
Mirowski learned the split-finger grip when he was 14. He has been able to use that fastball as a changeup, because the dropoff from his two-seam is right around the nine or 10 mph range. His fastball is 88-91 mph and his split is 80-81 mph. He calls it his "split-change."
With new-found confidence to throw any of his pitches in any count, Mirowski went after hitters.
"There was a development in my pitches and not shying away from the plate and not getting into three-ball counts," Mirowski said. "Getting into a three-ball count, my mentality was at that point, 'I am not going to walk this guy. But also not give them a pitch to good to hit.' I am trying to make him get an out on that, at least.
"If they get a hit, it is going to happen. I don't walk that many people, but I don't want to walk anybody now. I think it is just how you approach the hitter. I am getting them to look at something and then change that something.
"Everyone makes mistakes, but I try to keep the ball out of home plate by cutting it or running it. That helps me get to the two strikes to where I can use my offspeed and get the strikeouts."
That confidence has continued in Arizona for the Mesa Solar Sox, where Mirowski has posted a 1.64 ERA in eight games over 11 innings, striking out eight, walking two and allowing only two runs.