WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Exit interviews are often a formality, but right-hander Austin L. Adams used an end-of-season chat with former Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux as a springboard from an up-and-down debut season in the major leagues to an offseason chocked full of the kind of work necessary to show he’s a good pitcher.
“My last talk with Mike Maddux, he kind of sat me down and he really wanted me to understand that I have tremendous stuff,” Adams said. “There’s life on your fastball, you have a really good breaking ball. So you need to understand this, that you can be used as a weapon at this level. You’re not young, but don’t get caught up at being a rookie (at 26) at this level. You have everything that people who succeed at this level have.”
Adams can be excused if self-doubt crept in and muddled what should have been a major career achievement: finally reaching the big leagues with the Nationals in July after six seasons in the minors. Washington summoned him to fortify the bullpen in the first series after the All-Star break, and then-skipper Dusty Baker talked about how he liked the righty’s big arm and fastball, but was hoping for a good, low-leverage situation for Adams to get his feet wet in the majors.
Adams didn’t have to wait long. In the second game of a four-game series in Cincinnati, Baker called his number for the eighth inning with the Nats ahead 10-0. But what should have been a memorable moment suddenly turned into anything but. An error, a walk, a wild pitch and a hit batter loaded the bases for Scooter Gennett, who walked to force in a run. Adams then allowed a run-scoring single by Eugenio Suárez, and was relieved by Oliver Pérez.
Adams retreated shell-shocked to the bench with an infinite ERA. He gave up a run on two hits and two walks in his next outing in Milwaukee after being called up in September. But his incalculable ERA only went down to 18.00. Looking back on his debut, Adams admits things quickly got away from him.
“To say that didn’t stick with me a little longer than other bad outings I’ve had in the minor leagues would be lying,” he said. “That stuck with me for quite a while - but it also helped me a lot. My weaknesses were so magnified at that level. As soon as I got back down to Syracuse, (pitching coach) Bob Milacki and (manager) Billy Gardner (Jr.) really hit it hard on, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? No. 1, how do I do well enough (in Syracuse) that I get an opportunity to get called up in September and No. 2, how do I make sure when I get called up that this doesn’t happen again? We looked at video and a lot of things. The one in Milwaukee wasn’t so good, but it seemed like every single outing after that it was getting better and better and better.”
September finished with four scoreless outings by Adams, who looked a lot more like the power pitcher the Nationals acquired from the Angels in the Danny Espinosa deal than the guy who set the stage for the Reds to turn a 10-run deficit into a 10-7 squeaker. But the bad taste in his mouth from his debut didn’t dissipate quickly.
“There was a part of overthinking - am I good enough to be here? - and doubts like that. I don’t know about other guys here, but confidence level is something that I’ve struggled with a lot of the time, and just being with (Nationals director of mental conditioning) Mark Campbell, that’s helped me a lot here. Yeah, it was something that stuck with me for a while.”
But Maddux’s October chat put Adams on the right track, and Adams went ahead with his usual demanding offseason regimen, hoping it would allow him to continue his September success into spring training. In four Grapefruit League games, he’s allowed one hit in 3 2/3 innings with one walk and seven strikeouts.
“Pretty much every offseason, I take a week off from throwing and lifting, and then I get right back to it,” Adams said. “I don’t like taking a lot of time off because I feel like then you have to start getting your body back into shape. I’d rather just stay in throwing shape - I’m not pitching or anything. But look at my numbers, my obvious weakness is I walk too many guys, so how do we make sure that continues to go down? And it has.”
But now he has a new manager to impress in Davey Martinez.
“Us in this business, we have to make an impression every single year,” Adams said. “It’s a new year. So you’re either getting better or getting worse. If you’re just resting on your past works, that can only help you for so long, but eventually it catches up to you. Regardless if it’s Davey or it was Dusty back here, it’s always proving what you did in the offseason to improve.”
This spring, he’s sponged everything he can from veterans in the Nationals clubhouse - particularly ace Max Scherzer, closer Sean Doolittle, and setup men Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson - about throwing a better two-seam fastball. Hard throwers that can throw a fastball don’t have long baseball lives in the majors; hard throwers who can use a two-seamer or a changeup and give hitters more possibilities to consider are much harder to hit.
“What I really want to hammer down is getting a really good two-seam to work, almost as a changeup to lefties, and then if I can also get a changeup as well, that’s the ultimate goal,” Adams said. “So it’s not a one-trick pony out there.”
Adams has made another offseason change, adding his middle initial - “L” for Lance - to his official name. That’s more because of practicality rather than vanity. There’s another Austin Adams - Austin David Adams, a former Indians reliever who is now in the Angels system. The two players have been confused for some time now by fans and media members who search a name on Baseball-Reference.com and wind up at the wrong player’s page. A similar situation spurred Michael A. Taylor to add his middle initial a couple of years ago to limit confusion with a similarly named outfielder.
“How many could there be? But there’s two,” he said. “So I just tried to make it easy for (the media). And my wife - she gets frustrated and my family gets frustrated when someone puts the wrong information on (the TV). Back in the day, in the Cal League in 2014, I probably got one or two of his cards a day. I won’t sign them, though. I tweeted him, but he never tweeted back at me, unfortunately. Last year was pretty confusing, me coming from the Angels and then he signed with the Angels. The ‘L’ was to help everyone out.”
Adams’ spring is doing a good job of making sure the Nationals brass remembers who he is. And though he faces an uphill climb to force his way into a bullpen crowded with veterans, Adams hopes his performance and work ethic help make things difficult for the decision-makers who will craft the 25-man roster that comes north.
He may not have a clear path to that goal at this point, but a lot of things can happen in the next two and a half weeks. One minor injury could have a trickle-down effect and open the door for Adams.
“You want to be ready, but at the same time, I’m trying to go out there and win a job,” Adams said. “I want to make Davey and (pitching coach Derek) Lilliquist and (general manager Mike) Rizzo - whoever’s making those decisions - I want them to give them the hardest decision they have to make.”