Phillies

Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

usa-jakediekman-phillies-slideshow.jpg

Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Phillies reliever Jake Diekman used a performance-enhancing substance in 2013.

Relax. It was completely legal.

“This is the stuff,” Diekman said.

He pointed to a box of Dubble Bubble chewing gum that was sitting on a table in the Phillies’ spring-training clubhouse.

“I can’t chew anything else,” he said. “I grab about 20 pieces and stuff them in my pocket before going to the bullpen.”

In the dark season of 2013, Diekman was a bright spot. The hard-throwing lefty sidearmer developed the four Cs of relief pitching -- composure, control, confidence and cojones -- and is on everyone’s list of potential difference makers as the Phillies look to end a two-year playoff drought and get back to the postseason in 2014.

It seems as if every successful big-leaguer can point to a time in his career when everything began to click. For Diekman, the click happened Aug. 19 when he channeled the anger caused by a blown umpiring call into a 99-mph fastball and a game-saving strikeout.

Diekman, 27, believes he was able to harness his emotion that night because the game stopped moving in fast-forward for him last season.

He credits his performance-enhancing substance for that.

Last spring training, Diekman began chewing bubble gum when he pitched. He got away from it for a while then started doing it again during side work at Lehigh Valley.

Over time, he realized something. His focus and concentration improved when he chewed gum. Everything seemed to slow down and become more manageable. He was still in the high-speed lane of major-league baseball, but no longer did it feel as if everything was whizzing past him.

“For some reason, it makes me think less,” Diekman said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”

Though not scientifically proven, there are theories that suggest chewing gum can increase oxygen to the brain and therefore improve alertness and concentration.

Diekman is a believer.

“I don’t get super sped-up anymore,” he said. “Now it feels weird if I don’t pitch with gum. I threw my first bullpen here this spring without it and I was lost.”

While Phillies officials will gladly provide Diekman with all the bubble gum he needs if it means he pitches well, the biggest reason the game slowed down for him last season can be boiled down to one word.

Experience.

Diekman pitched in 32 games in 2012, his rookie season, and 29 more last season before he heard the click on Aug. 19. He had just come into a one-run game in the eighth inning against Colorado at Citizens Bank Park. There were two outs and runners on first and second when umpire Jim Joyce called Diekman for a balk. The next day, Joyce told Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg that he was wrong to have called the balk. But that didn’t help Diekman at the time. The balk call put runners at second and third with the game on the line.

Seething inside, Diekman turned his fury into a weapon. He blew a 99-mph fastball by Nolan Arenado to end the Rockies’ threat and help propel the Phillies to a win.

“I got (ticked) off,” Diekman said. “A base hit would have lost us the lead. I just said to myself, ‘Go right at him. Attack the hitter.’

“When you first get called up to the big leagues, you have to know you’re here for a reason. You have to believe that you can pitch here. That was the turning point for me. After the balk, I felt like, ‘I can pitch up here.’ I felt like I pitched with fire after that.”

Fire and bubble gum.

After the balk game, Diekman made 15 more appearances out of the bullpen for the Phillies last season. In 14 innings, he allowed just six hits and one run. He struck out 17 and walked four.

That finish is a big reason Phillies officials believe Diekman can be a force this season.

Of course, Diekman would not even be here if it weren’t for a stab-in-the-dark delivery change suggested by minor-league pitching coach Bob Milacki in the summer of 2009. At the time, Diekman was in low Single A ball. He threw straight over the top and was pretty much headed nowhere. During a bullpen session, Milacki suggested Diekman try throwing sidearm. The pitcher was put on the disabled list so he could practice the new delivery.

“I got put on the phantom DL to work on it,” he said. “It was the worst experience of my life. Shin contusion. I had to fake being hurt for two weeks and it sucked.”

Turns out the worst experience of Diekman’s life changed his life. For the better. The new arm angle added deception to his delivery and velocity to his fastball. He went from the low 90s on the radar gun to the high 90s. His career took off.

“I’d be home somewhere if I didn’t make the change,” he said.

Along with his blazing fastball, Diekman has a power slider and he’s working hard on his changeup this spring. It’s not difficult to envision Diekman closing games somewhere down the road. He certainly has the stuff. But for now, he will be asked to get important outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

“It doesn’t matter what they ask me to do,” Diekman said. “I just want to pitch.”

And when he does, you can be sure he’ll be chewing bubble gum.

Red Sox name Alex Cora manager; Mets offer job to Mickey Callaway

usa-alex-cora-red-sox.jpg
USA Today Images

Red Sox name Alex Cora manager; Mets offer job to Mickey Callaway

BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox have hired Houston Astros bench coach Alex Cora to be their new manager.

The team made the announcement on Sunday, a day after Cora's Astros reached the World Series.

Cora replaces John Farrell, who was fired this month despite winning back-to-back AL East titles. Farrell's teams won the 2013 World Series, finished last twice and then in each of the past two years won the division but got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

A native of Puerto Rico, Cora is the first Hispanic manager in Red Sox history.

He played 14 years in the major leagues before retiring in 2011, including parts of four seasons with the Red Sox. He was a member of Boston's 2007 World Series team.

Cora has never managed before.

Reports: Mets offer manager job to Indians coach Callaway
NEW YORK — It appears the New York Mets have settled on their choice for a manager.

Several media outlets are reporting the team has offered the job to Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. The New York Post was the first to report the Mets were in talks with Callaway, saying a deal is being finalized.

When contacted Sunday, multiple Mets officials declined to comment.

With his contract set to expire, Terry Collins stepped down at the end of the season after seven years as Mets manager and accepted a position as a special assistant to general manager Sandy Alderson.

The 42-year-old Callaway has been Cleveland's pitching coach for the past five seasons under highly successful manager Terry Francona. Led by ace right-hander Corey Kluber, the Indians led the major leagues with a 3.30 ERA this season, one year after reaching the World Series.

Callaway has never managed at any professional level.

Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

usa-jose-altuve-astros.jpg
USA Today Images

Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve embraced Justin Verlander as confetti rained down. An improbable thought just a few years ago, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Astros reached the World Series for only the second time by blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Verlander, the ALCS MVP, and fellow Houston ace Dallas Keuchel will have plenty of rest before the World Series begins at sweltering Dodger Stadium.

"I love our personality," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We have the right amount of fun, the right amount of seriousness, the right amount of perspective when we need it. This is a very, very unique group. To win 100 games and still be hungry is pretty remarkable."

The Astros will try for their first World Series title, thanks in large part to Altuve, the diminutive second baseman who swings a potent bat, and Verlander, who switched teams for the first time in his career to chase a ring.

Four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees on consecutive nights after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first crown, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

"This city, they deserve this," McCullers said.

Clutch defensive plays by third baseman Alex Bregman and center fielder George Springer helped Houston improve to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and become the fifth team in major league history to capture a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four. A noted curveballer, McCullers finished up with 24 straight breaking pitches to earn his first major league save.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

"I know people are going to talk about how we didn't win many games on the road. There were some other teams that haven't won many games on the road, either. We just happened to run into a very good team that just beat us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Astros also eliminated New York in the 2015 postseason, with Keuchel winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

CC Sabathia entered 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double. He snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night in a 7-1 win.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York went 1-6 on the road this postseason.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS exactly 13 years earlier.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh.

With McCullers in charge, the Astros soon closed it out.

"It's not easy to get here. And I don't take any of this for granted. And this is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series."