Miller on the mental side of baseball

Right-hander Justin Miller knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing all season. And the last two weeks have certainly been a rougher road for the reliever after his strong beginning for the Nats.

Miller did not allow a run in his first eight appearances from May 26 to June 13. In that run, he struck out 17 batters and allowed only two hits.

Since then, he has allowed at least one run in five straight appearances, allowing 11 hits and striking out eight batters. He has walked five batters in his last three games. He has surrendered three homers in the last five outings.

But it could have been much worse. He still did his job. He still kept the Nats in games. How did he prevent one hit, or a walk or two, from ballooning into a game-losing moment?

I caught up with him on Sunday and asked him what the difference has been since his quick start with the Nats. He meticulously detailed every at-bat in which someone got a hit off of him.

Miller-Throw-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“Every one of them was a pitch that was poorly located,” Miller explained. “The last one was (the Phillies’ Andrew) Knapp got me for a home run. He battled me. There was a couple of sliders that I left up that he pulled foul. If I would have buried those, I probably would have been able to get him to chase.

“(The Blue Jays’ Yangervis) Solarte, when he hit the home run, it was supposed to be a fastball away and I yanked it back in. The only place he could probably beat me is down and in, and he got me.

“(The Blue Jays’ Randal) Grichuk, made another long battle, and if I had thrown a slider down and away, probably would have got him. But it was a cement-mixer slider up that he was able to hit up the middle.

“(The Blue Jays’ Kevin) Pillar, it was a backup slider that he hit up the middle as well.

“Last one was a leadoff triple, then a couple of walks, but wound up getting through it, being able to correct myself. Same with the last one (against the Phillies), couple of walks, but was able to get a couple of punch-outs.”

Miller said that in the past he might have panicked when faced with a couple of hits or homers allowed late in a game. But today with the Nationals, he is a different pitcher, and that is why he believes he can assess what happened and learn from it.

“Before, I might have let the game speed up on me and get pissed off and just try to throw as hard as I can,” Miller explained. “Being here, being able to talk to some of the guys, I have been able to, like, rechannel my thought, calm myself down and then regather in the moment and get back into what I was doing before.

“I mean, in the last two outings I got the bases loaded and only allowed one run. Before it could have gone really, really badly. But I was able to rechannel my energy and refocus and get the job done.”

Miller said his talks with his teammates in the bullpen have helped him figure out what went wrong and then fix it while still in the game. He said closer Sean Doolittle has been a big part of this learning process. He also has consulted with the Nationals’ “mental doctor,” Mark Campbell.

“Doolittle. I picked his brain the last couple of nights,” Miller said. “He’s able to go out there and be Mr. Consistent every single time. I kind of wanted to figure out his mental side of it. He talks to our (director of mental conditioning Campbell) here, so I got with (Campbell), talking with him, talking with Doo and being able, I guess, to notice things kind of derailing and being able to stop, step back and rechannel your thoughts and change your thought process. Being able to refocus back to what you were doing positively.”

It is fascinating to hear how important the mental side of the game can be to these players, especially pitchers, and how they can use these tools they learn from Campbell and their teammates to help them get through high-leverage situations on the mound.

Baseball is a basic one-on-one matchup, and when a pitcher gives up a big base hit, how does he recover?

He is alone on the mound. It is the pitcher versus the hitter. No one else is going to throw that next pitch. Miller gave us some great insight here on what he does to “refocus” and “rechannel,” with help from Doolittle and Campbell, so that one hit doesn’t turn into four or five or six runs, and the game is over.

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