Rays pitchers take advantage of back fields
Archer, Balfour and Cobb get extended reps out of sight from opponents
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Whatever happens on the back fields, stays on the back fields.
Chris Archer and Grant Balfour could be found on the back fields of the Charlotte Sports Complex on Wednesday, and for good reason. The American League East conducts Spring Training operations on the west coast of Florida. Thus, pitching against those teams could tip a pitcher's hand early in the season. Thus, cloak and dagger tactics run rampant at this juncture of the Grapefruit League season.
While the Rays were in Sarasota, Fla., playing the Orioles, the Rays starter and closer each started games against Minor League teams, thereby preventing the Orioles from gaining an edge against either pitcher.
When Archer faces the Orioles in Baltimore during their April series, the right-hander will be as foreign as a pitcher can be when the other team hasn't hit against him since Sept. 28, which was the last time Archer pitched against the O's.
Throwing to Ryan Hanigan, Archer got his work in on Wednesday, throwing 91 pitches (61 strikes), and he left the outing feeling good about himself.
"I think overall, I got through my pitch count, I got through 90 pitches, got up six times," Archer said. "I could have definitely executed some pitches better, but just simple things I could fix. Nothing too overwhelming."
Meanwhile, Balfour hasn't faced Baltimore all spring, and let's just say there will be plenty of "Aussie Rage" when he pitches against them this season, given his recent history with the team.
In December, the Australia native agreed to a two-year, $15 million contract with the Orioles, but the deal fell through when Baltimore said he flunked his physical. In the aftermath of that news, Seth Levinson, Balfour's agent, charged that his client was healthy and that the O's had just decided not to sign him. Validating his charge, Levinson cited the findings of two doctors who found nothing out of order after looking at an MRI of Balfour's right shoulder.
Balfour pitched an inning against the Twins' Double-A New Britain team on Wednesday in advance of his first back-to-back appearance that will come Thursday night against Minnesota. He threw 12 pitches while withstanding the atmosphere.
"Nothing against [the guys] out here, but it's tough to get the adrenaline going," Balfour said. "You've got 40, 30, whatever thousand people yelling at you [in the Majors], screaming and yelling. That atmosphere gets you going right there, and the [bullpen] phone ringing and all that stuff.
"It's hard to get that when you're here [in the Minor League games]. You just know you're going out to start and there's no one here. That's just the way it is."
Opposing scouts can occasionally be seen at these games, but anything they write in a scouting report can't simulate what a hitter learns by standing in the box against a pitcher.
Thus, one can understand the benefits of taking the back-fields route. However, pitching on the back fields brings other challenges. Among them: having Major League pitchers preparing for Major League games by pitching on Minor League fields to Minor League hitters.
"You're supposed to go out there and not give up a run, but if you do, you kind of feel like you didn't do your job," said Alex Cobb, who pitched in a simulated game against Rays Minor Leaguers on Monday, and showed his support for Archer by watching his outing on Wednesday. "Guys see you with your pants down and know that you're a big leaguer, they maybe take that at-bat a little more locked in. It's tough pitching down there, it really is."
Cobb noted how different the visual is during the games, viewed by a handful of fans along with Minor League players serving their mandatory five-inning sentence under sunny skies to watch -- and pay attention -- to the action.
"You're not surrounded by grandstands," Cobb said. "The visual is much different. Home plate looks a little bit further away. You don't really have a backdrop -- I don't know how the mind interprets what's going on back there, but it's really a different visual than if you're in Yankee Stadium and you have stands sitting right on top of you."
According to the rules of the back-field games, Major League hitters trying to get at-bats can lead off every inning, regardless of the order. And the pitchers can roll innings if they get themselves into a jam.
"My last game, they wanted me to get up and down so many times, and there were some errors early on that raised my pitch count," Cobb said. "So later in the game, they wanted me to get up another two or three times, so they'd roll an inning after 12 or 13 pitches so I could get to another inning, whether I had three outs or not. I had runners on second and third one time and they rolled it. That was sweat."
Alas, the point of Spring Training is to prepare for the season. There is an obvious value in facing Major League hitters.
Cobb's last two outings have now been against Minor League competition, so he's looking forward to facing the Orioles in his next two starts, even though they are an American League East rival.
"It's going to be the Orioles both times out," Cobb said. "But I think I miss them early in the season, so it's not that big of a deal.
"I need to face some Major League teams in the next couple of outings. You can take what you want out of the Minor League starts, and it does prepare you to get your body going up and down seven times. But you need that competitiveness. The game within the game at the Major League level, where guys really have approaches and guys are playing chess out there. ... You need that feeling, that mentality."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.