08/27/12 12:54 PM ET
Epiphany prompts May to improve mound mentality
Phillies' top prospect puts emphatic end to negative thinking on the field
By Jake Kaplan / MLB.com
May needed just 11 pitches to strike out the side in a fourth inning against Double-A Portland, a Red Sox affiliate. Back on the mound in the fifth, May gave out three of the eight walks he would issue that day and surrendered a three-run home run.
What was the difference?
"Well, I had a great inning and then I thought, 'Wow, I feel good today. I hope it doesn't blow up,' " May recounted. "And it blew up because I was thinking about it."
The mental aspect that accompanies pitching is often overlooked. Some naturally handle it better than others. Few talk about it as in depth as May, who has to constantly work to build good habits on the mound. A rough stretch he feels is in the past, May thinks that he's in as good a spot as he has been since starting his professional career.
May, a 6-foot-5 right-hander whose midseason struggles have led to a 9-12 record and a 4.97 ERA, was to make his penultimate regular-season start for Double-A Reading on Monday night.
"I feel like I'm figuring out exactly what I need to do," said the 22-year-old from Kelso, Wash. "All the things I've been doing are paying off quickly. I'm kind of excited about it. That gives me confidence right there."
May appeared to make a seamless transition from Class A Clearwater to Double-A. He got off to a hot start in April, earning wins in his first five starts while allowing just eight runs over 30 innings.
But somewhere along the line, bad habits developed, mentally and mechanically. May was a negative person. A young fan at a game asked him if he had ever hit a ball off the brick wall at FirstEnergy Stadium. "No, but I've given one up," May quipped.
"It's funny, but it's also degrading to you," May realized later about his negativity. "Especially when you're struggling and you've still been struggling. There's a time and a place, and that wasn't the time or the place. I was reinforcing the fact that I give up home runs all the time."
May struggled commanding his fastball, throwing too many waist-high to opposing hitters. When things got bad, May said, he wasn't mentally tough enough to allow them from snowballing. His ERA ballooned to 5.25. After the July start in which he issued eight walks, the analytical May developed some strategies to help keep himself focused on the task at hand.
"One pitch at a time" is a phrase May will repeat out loud if he finds his mind wandering or catches himself pondering the zeros on the scoreboard. Following his fourth consecutive good outing on Aug. 12, May said he was finding that he has to repeat those five words less and less.
Aside from a blip on Aug. 17, May has pitched well since giving up four home runs and walking four in a loss on July 23. He's been getting ahead in counts more consistently with his fastball, which tops out at 94 or 95 mph, rendering his curveball, changeup and a pitch he describes as a "slider/cutter thing" more effective. There's no denying May's talent -- even despite his struggles, he's struck out almost a hitter an inning this season.
"Ninety percent of this game is mental, they say," Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. "Once you get to this level, a lot of guys are pretty equal. We've got guys all over this league and all over this team who can throw the ball over 90 mph. So you've got to be strong mentally, and he's working at it. I think he's getting better at it. I think he's showing it with the success he's starting to have."
"It's all a learning experience for him," said Benny Looper, the Phils' assistant general manager in charge of player personnel.
A student of the game, May likes to compare his tools to Major League pitchers and take small things from watching the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Matt Cain. The San Francisco Giants' ace is a big one. May feels as if they pitch with similar styles.
May hopes to get a chance to experience big league camp in Spring Training next year to soak everything in from watching the Phillies' starters in person.
A consistent finish to the season is what the Phils hope to see out of May. Wathan wants his starter to believe in his stuff, which he calls "tremendous," and pound the strike zone. Solo home runs aren't going to beat you, Wathan tells his pitchers, walks that precede a home run will.
Has the "top prospect" label provided May with added pressure?
"It's something that's there," May said, "and you want to live up to labels people put on you. I mean, who wouldn't want to? Have I? No. This year, I feel like I haven't produced nearly as much as I'd like to and people would expect.
"The learning experience has taken a really long time this season. But where I am right now, I'm almost glad that I had to make these changes, because my same roller-coaster-type career would continue had I not struggled for such a long period of time and had to make some serious changes in what I was doing on the field every day."
May feels like he's a better pitcher now than he was in the first month of the season, when he cruised to a 5-0 record. A breakout outing is coming, he insists.
"Me beating myself," May said, "isn't going to be something I'm going to allow to happen any more."
Jake Kaplan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.