SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Steven Okert made his MLB debut last April and walked the first batter he faced. The next batter taught him a valuable lesson.
“The ball was smoked and (Brandon) Crawford is right there and he turns two,” Okert said Sunday. “It was like, ‘Wow. Don’t try to do too much. Use your defense.’ You’ve got Crawford out there making diving plays, and Joe (Panik) up the middle, and (Brandon) Belt scooping balls and (Eduardo) Nunez out there, and our outfielders. That takes pressure off any pitcher.”
Okert tried to keep that in mind throughout his three stints in the big leagues, and the late-season results showed that he was getting better and better at slowing the game down. When he returned in September, Okert allowed one run in nine appearances, with eight strikeouts in those eight innings. That put him in position to try and win an opening day job this spring. It would be natural for Okert to feel that added weight this month, but he said he has tried to ignore it.
“I try not to think about it at all, honestly,” he said. “Ultimately the decision is not mine. There’s nothing I can do other than show my best on the field. Me and (Josh) Osich are buddies and we hang out. It’s a weird position to be in, being buddies and competing, but I’m trying to stay within myself.”
Okert has tried not to look at the numbers. But if he were to sneak a glance at the stat sheet, he would see a young left-hander who has done everything necessary to line up at Chase Field on April 2. In seven scoreless innings, he has allowed just two hits, walked one, and struck out four. He entered after Jeff Samardzija ran into a jam in the fifth Sunday, getting two grounders and a harmless fly to center to strand a runner.
“O has been good. He's done all he can,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen between those guys, but he certainly has pitched well.”
Early on, it looked like a big spring would make Okert an opening-day lock. Osich allowed runs in each of his first three outings and Will Smith missed the first few weeks of action with an irritated elbow. But Osich has settled in, with just one hit allowed over his past four appearances. Smith made his spring debut Friday and he’s set to ramp it up even more this week.
If Smith is ready for opening day, the decision for the second lefty spot will be a difficult one. Okert has elevated his status in part by listening to those around him. He has taken advice from Jeremy Affeldt on how to deal with the mental part of pitching, and when Tim Hudson was in camp in February, Okert picked his brain about his changeup. The best advice may have come from a position player.
“The first time he caught me, (Nick) Hundley noticed that sometimes I’m locked in on the target and sometimes I’m looking somewhere else,” he said. “Hundley and (Tim) Federowicz have gotten on me about looking in (at them) consistently. Everything with pitching is about being repeatable with your delivery, so I’ve been working on that.”
Okert has a fastball that regularly ran up to 94 last season, but he’s focusing on being less of a strikeout pitcher. He knows the best path through an inning with the Giants is often to let the Gold Glove-heavy defense take over, and he’s hoping he gets to test Crawford, Panik and others often. The September run last year showed that he belongs, but teammates made that clear long before Okert found his stride on the mound.
“Getting back up to the big leagues last year, when I walked in, right away it was: 'Congratulations. Make it about you being you. Make your pitches and you’ll be fine,'" Okert said. "And getting in a couple of big situations last year, that helped a lot."