Saturday, January 30, 1999

Can Gullett earn a save with Avery?




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

gullett
Don Gullett
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Steve Avery
        Don Gullett found the trouble on Tape No.11. He had been studying the collected works of Steve Avery, and suddenly the pitcher's body language bespoke pain. Screamed it, actually.

        It was July 6, 1996. Houston at Atlanta. Watching the tape — one of 40 he had acquired — Gullett could see the discomfort in Avery's demeanor, and its disastrous effect on his delivery. Avery started favoring his hip, and it immediately messed up his mechanics. He has never been the same since.

        Avery was then a part of the Braves' peerless pitching rotation. He is now, at the tender age of 28, a Reds' reclamation project. Gullett's job, as Jack McKeon's pitching coach, is to take Avery back in time, to repair the residual damage of that Saturday start at Fulton County Stadium, to revive a career gone terribly wrong.

        “I thought he was one of the best pitchers in baseball when I first saw him,” Gullett said. “At an early age, you could see that the guy knew what he was doing and he had very good stuff. The sky was the limit.”

        To watch Steve Avery in October 1991, was to imagine the young Sandy Koufax. He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates twice in the National League Championship Series, both times 1-0, with a fastball in the 90s and a curveball as cruel as Snidely Whiplash. He was 21 years old, a 6-foot-4 lefty of limitless promise.

Close will be good enough
        Those days grow distant now, but they are not so far gone that Avery has lost his aura. The Reds signed him last month despite alarming earned-run averages of 6.42 in 1997 and 5.02 in 1998. Bargain hunting Jim Bowden, the Reds' general manager, reasoned Avery was worth a flyer if Gullett could locate even a shadow of his former self.

        Avery need not be what he once was in order to help the Reds. He needs only to be better than he has been lately. Because Gullett has shown a talent for reviving careers consigned to the scrap heap (see Harnisch, Pete and Bere, Jason), hope springs eternal.

        “Sometimes last year, Steve was slow, slower, slower,” Bowden said. “If we can just get medium, medium, medium, we can win.”

        Gullett had not intended to disclose his diagnosis until he had the chance to start tinkering with Avery in spring training. But a lost soul will listen to almost anyone who might lead him to salvation, and Avery was eager for the Pitching Doctor's input when the two men met Thursday during the Reds media caravan.

        “I've never been one to turn down help,” Avery said. “It's stupid to not listen to people. The frustrating thing for me has been that I'll play catch in the outfield and I can throw as hard as I ever have, but it's not the same on the mound. I know it's a mechanical thing.”

Velocity is not there
        Avery's arm remains sound, but his velocity has gradually evaporated. Reds special assistant Gene Bennett, who first scouted Avery in high school, thinks his fastball has tailed off from a peak of 92-93 mph to a present of 85 or 86 mph. For a major-league pitcher, such a drop-off can make the difference between surviving a mistake pitch and seeing it swatted into the seats.

        Unable to rely on his fastball, Avery has evolved into a reluctant finesse pitcher. Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, determined to keep the ball down in Fenway Park, prevailed on Avery to drop his arm angle to attain more movement on his pitches. This exacerbated Avery's loss of velocity and led to more walks, fewer strikeouts and an emasculated changeup.

        Avery, once the young Koufax, was pitching progressively like Charlie Leibrandt.

        “When things went wrong, I didn't know how to adjust to it,” he said. “I'd have three good starts, then two bad ones in a row. It just depended on which side of the bed I woke up on.”

        Gullett's job is to restore Avery's consistency and his confidence, to adjust his arm angle and his attitude, to make him more like he was.

        A left arm like this one is always worth another look.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE