Ask any scout or player and they’ll tell you that if you want to learn to hit a breaking ball, you go to the Mexican League. If you want to learn to throw a breaking ball, you go to Japan.
Lewis was taken by Texas with the 38th overall pick in the 1999 draft, but he couldn't establish himself in the majors. So he packed up his family and headed to the Far East and spent two years in the Japanese Central League with the Hiroshima Carp. And though it might sound cliché, there Lewis finally learned how to pitch instead of throw.
For Lewis, having confidence in his stuff was as important as developing new baseball skills. He always had the raw stuff, but he never had the command. A rotator cuff injury robbed him of the mid-90s velocity he used to have, but in turn it might have forced him to be less dependent on his arm and more on his guile.
His wife, Jenny, says going to Japan was the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and the proof is in the pudding: 26 wins over the past two years for Texas, thus repaying the team that originally drafted him in the first round. He’s also been a beast in the postseason, handcuffing the New York Yankees in two ALCS games last year as well as the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. He did the same to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS this year. His stuff isn’t sexy, but he battles and minimizes his mistakes. Lewis will need all of that Thursday night against St. Louis Game 2 starter Jaime Garcia.
Keys to Game 2
• Lewis has had good success in the postseason in the past two years, but the Cardinals’ lineup might be his biggest challenge thus far. In particular, I see Matt Holliday and David Freese giving Lewis trouble. Both hitters have the ability to go opposite field with the pitch while still getting good barrel on the ball and centering it up on the sweet spot. They do not slap at anything and you can tell that by the loud crack their contact makes. Lewis is deceptive and changes speeds effectively within his four-pitch repertoire and will need all of them Thursday night.
• On the other hand, Garcia will rely on his changeup Thursday night. When it’s on, it’s his best pitch. He told me he didn’t like manager Tony La Russa’s quick hook in the NLCS, but he gave up six runs on six hits and three walks in just four innings. So he should expect another quick hook Thursday night, either in the fifth or sixth inning, especially with how dominating the Cards’ bullpen has been.
• In Game 1, Texas reliever Alexi Ogando gave up what turned out to be the game-winning hit to pinch-hitter Allen Craig. Ogando threw a 98 mph fastball up and paid the price. If that matchup happens again you can bet Ogando’s third pitch will be a slider down and away to the right-handed-hitting Craig.
• The Adrian Beltre-to-Ian Kinsler-to Michael Young trio turned two sweet double plays Wednesday night, showing why this is one of the best defensive infields in baseball. The Cardinals will not get the breaks and extra outs they got from Milwaukee. If Lewis is on, these three, along with shortstop Elvis Andrus, will be busy.
La Russa vs. Washington
We said this World Series will come down to a game of matchups, and Wednesday night’s contest did not prove otherwise. With Tony La Russa and Ron Washington going head-to-head on the chessboard, I thought it might be fun to keep score. Here's how three decisions panned out:
1. Arthur Rhodes vs. Josh Hamilton: In a classic lefty-on-lefty matchup, La Russa negated Hamilton with the ageless Rhodes. Hamilton looked bad, obviously hampered by his injured groin. He had no torque, could not use his lower half at all and swung with all hands. He looked terrible, flying out to center. The 48-degree weather probably didn’t help, but the Rangers should be very concerned. La Russa 1, Washington 0