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Cummings Pitching Like a Pro Thanks to Off-Season Practice

It would be difficult to concoct a formula that would put you on a faster track to the major leagues than John Cummings’ recipe.

Check out these ingredients: He’s big--6 feet 3, 210 pounds. He’s strong--his fastball is consistently clocked between 88-92 m.p.h. And he’s that rarest of finds among pitchers--a left-hander. Scouts, stop drooling.

So when Cummings takes the mound for home games, why is he standing in War Memorial Park instead of the Kingdome? Because it wasn’t until last fall that Cummings learned how to pitch. Oh, Cummings threw all right, during three varsity seasons at Canyon High School (1986-88), two at USC (1989-90) and two years in the Seattle Mariners’ organization (1990-91).

But thanks to an off-season, instructional league makeover, courtesy of Seattle pitching coach Dan Warthen and Mariner roving pitching instructor Bobby Cuellar, Cummings has developed into a legitimate prospect.

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He used to be a one-pitch wonder, relying almost exclusively on his fastball. With that pitch, Cummings thrived in high school, survived in college but almost nose-dived in professional baseball.

After six solid starts at Bellingham, Wash., the Mariners’ short-season A team, Cummings was promoted to Class-A San Bernardino, where he finished 1990 with a 2-4 record and 4.20 earned-run average. He went 4-10 with a 4.06 ERA at San Bernardino in 1991.

Then, in September and October, Cummings learned how to throw a true curveball, one that snaps sharply instead of the six-inch bender he was accustomed to. He perfected his changeup and added a cut fastball and sinker to his repertoire. He added another dimension by occasionally throwing sidearm to left-handed batters.

And just look at him now: Cummings is 10-5 with a 2.97 ERA for the Class-A Peninsula Pilots, who play in Hampton, Va. He has 100 strikeouts and 47 walks in 118 innings.

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He’s a big reason the Pilots, who lost 22 consecutive games last season and finished 46-93, 43 1/2 games behind first-place Kinston, won the Carolina League, Southern Division first-half championship this season and are in first place in the second half.

And he’ll be one of the starting pitchers in Wednesday’s Carolina League All-Star game in Salem, Va.

“I finally learned how to pitch,” Cummings, 23, said. “Before I was just a thrower. You can get away with that in high school and even in college, to a certain extent. But not here.”

Cummings credits Peninsula Manager Marc Hill, a former major league catcher, and pitching coach Gary Lindblad, a former major league lefty, with properly reinforcing and continually refining the adjustments he made last fall. But Cummings deserves credit for his transformation, too.

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It was Cummings who, realizing he wasn’t getting any younger, started coming to the park at 2:15 p.m. for 7 p.m. games this season, running 40 minutes and lifting weights every day. It was Cummings who developed a sound work ethic and who now refuses to believe anything will come easily.

“I have the philosophy that I don’t want to have any regrets in five years,” Cummings said. “I don’t want to say, ‘If only I worked harder, if only I had tried this pitch.’ I want to go all out so I don’t have any doubts.”

Add Cummings: He hopes his all-star experience this week is better than his last all-star start, in the 1988 Orange County North-South high school game.

Cummings, an All-Southern Section selection in 1988, hadn’t thrown much during the two-week break between the season and all-star game, and he suffered control problems, walking the first five batters of the game.

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The Yankees had drafted Cummings out of high school, and several scouts in the bleachers could be seen exchanging banter with a Yankee scout, suggesting he offer Cummings $20 to sign right now.

“That wouldn’t bother me,” said Cummings, an eighth-round pick of the Mariners in 1990. “You can’t let what people think of you get you down. People are going to say things, and whether they’re positive or negative, I don’t pay attention.”

Cummings is not worried about a repeat performance Wednesday night.

“I really haven’t given (the 1988 game) much thought,” he said. “That game didn’t mean much--if it was a championship game or something, I would have taken it a lot harder. But I was already going to USC, and it didn’t matter. Those things happen. Just look at what happened to Tom Glavine in the All-Star game.”

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Catch a star: When Jon Pitts signed with the Texas Rangers out of Esperanza High in 1991, he didn’t figure he’d be catching Nolan Ryan any time soon.

But there he was in March, behind the plate during a scrimmage in spring training with none other than the legendary Ryan on the mound.

The Rangers were on a road trip, but Ryan remained in camp for extra work. Pitts, 19, a rookie league catcher, drew the lucky assignment of forming the other end of the battery.

Ryan’s first pitch popped into Pitts’ mitt. Pitts, hoping to impress the Express, fired the ball back and . . . right over Ryan’s head and into center field.

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“I was kind of nervous,” said Pitts, a 14th-round pick in 1991. “My arm was still sore. I wasn’t comfortable at all. I think I threw only one ball over the pitcher’s head in all of high school. But after a couple pitches, it was like catching any other pitcher. He was throwing at about three-quarters speed. He was bringing it.”

Pitts injured his arm after five rookie league games last season and had surgery last August to remove bone spurs. Doctors predicted he’d be out at least a year, but Pitts was throwing by spring training.

Unfortunately, his arm hasn’t recovered fully, and he’s been limited to only 14 games with the Rangers’ rookie team in the Gulf Coast League.

“It still nags a little bit,” Pitts said. “Everybody who’s had surgery goes through a period when their arm is basically still recovering. I ice it every day, do the drills for it every day. I’m trying to do the best I can do so I can get out of this league.”

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Shining Star: Former Cal State Fullerton standout Dave Staton, a first baseman for the Las Vegas Stars, won Tuesday’s home run derby during festivities for Wednesday’s triple-A All-Star game in Richmond, Va.

Staton, second in the Pacific Coast League in home runs with 17, hit three in 15 swings to win the $150 first prize.

“That’s not a lot, I know,” Staton said, “but I guess all that counts is winning the thing.”

Staton is hitting .291 with 15 doubles and 60 RBIs for the Stars, the San Diego Padres’ triple-A team. His three-year career high for home runs in a season was 22 last year for the Stars.

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