Saturday, March 1, 2003

New pitches could extend Leiter's career

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

JUPITER, Fla. - A groundball to shortstop in the first inning of the second exhibition game of the year may not seem like much. But to Al Leiter, it was validation.

The New York Mets' veteran left-hander has worked diligently in spring training on his changeup and two-seam fastball, two pitches he has long experimented with but never committed to.

With one out in the bottom of the first inning Friday, he took a deep breath and threw a two-seam fastball to St. Louis' Eli Marrero. As the ball was supposed to, it broke to the outer half of the plate and the right-hander hitter tapped it to Joe McEwing at short.

It was the continuation a process that could see Leiter go from being a power pitcher on the downside of a fine career to a tactician with three or four more good seasons left.

At 37, Leiter is re-inventing himself.

"I'm throwing pitches I've been working on for a while now but I'm sticking with it a little longer this time because I'm seeing good results," he said. "It's something I know I need to do."

Leiter throws a good four-seam fastball that stays up in the strike zone before breaking to the right. But his money pitch is a cut fastball that tails sharply inside to right-handed hitters. At 90-92 mph, it's one of the nastiest pitches in baseball.

But it's also an increasingly predictable one. Leiter was 13-13 last season, losing the most games he has in 16 major-league seasons. He also allowed an uncharacteristic 23 home runs.

"There's a long history of my pitching inside now," Leiter said. "Batters know me and know where to look for a pitch. They're finding an advantage."

To shift those odds back in his favor, Leiter has to shift sides of the plate.

With new Met Tom Glavine as his tutor, Leiter is working on perfecting his changeup and adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire. The two-seamer, thrown correctly, will dart to the left of the plate on a downward plane. For Glavine, the sink is natural. Leiter needs to make sure he "finishes" the pitch with the action of his wrist.

If Leiter can effectively work both sides of the plate, the book hitters have assembled on him becomes useless.

"He would be devastating," Glavine said.

The hard part for Leiter, Glavine said, will be to trust his ability to throw new pitches.

"It sounds easy - just throw this pitch - but it's really not," Glavine said. "Especially for Al, he's been such a dominant inside pitcher and throwing the ball that way for such a long time, it's hard to change. You get a certain mentality."

Leiter is not going to make radical changes. At best, he would add a few more changeups and 15 two-seam fastballs over the length of an average outing.

"If I execute and nail 15 of those two-seamers, that would be huge for me," he said. "I can't just do it intermittently, I need to commit to it. And I'd love to go from throwing maybe three changes to eight or 10."

Leiter has spent much of his time during spring training with Glavine, working on what has worked so well for the former Atlanta Brave.

Glavine is also 37, left-handed and talkative. He and Leiter, while different types of pitchers, communicate easily.

When Leiter threw in the bullpen on Wednesday, Glavine leaned on a fence behind him, offering pointers. Leiter threw almost exclusively two-seam fastballs and changeups that day, adding tools he hopes to use once the season starts.

"I enjoy the ability to pitch and change speeds and get guys off balance," Leiter said. "Throwing a quality ball game later in my career is far more satisfying than early in my career when I was overpowering guys. It's actual true pitching and that's what's fun."

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