Man on a Mission : Delahoya Toils Away as Dodger Farmhand at San Antonio
A string-bean of a young man with gangly limbs and a furrowed brow leans back with a high leg kick, curls forward, almost assumes the fetal position, and unfolds in a twist of accelerated motion.
From his right hand he hurls an object that is not immediately identifiable as it swiftly emerges from a tangle of whirling body parts.
Obviously, the projectile must be a baseball, one headed wide of the strike zone. Or so the batter, a left-hander, assumes. So he lets it pass.
As the batter helplessly watches, the pitch suddenly sweeps toward him, arcing until it settles with a thud in the catcher’s glove positioned knee-high over the farthest edge of home plate.
“Steee-rike three!” the umpire squealed.
“Viva Delahoya!” bellowed a fan.
Chris Pritchett, head slightly bowed, turns to face the visitors’ dugout along the first-base line at V.J. Keefe Stadium. The hometown fans provide directions as he strides back toward the bench, bat balancing on his shoulder.
“Left, right, left, right, left. . . .” they taunt.
The curveball is working.
The weather is hot and humid, just the way Delahoya likes it.
San Antonio Mission fans--many of them, like him, of Mexican descent--are hungry for a victory.
Javier Delahoya is in his element. Heaven can’t help the Midland Angels.
Two hours later, Delahoya, a 23-year-old former Grant High standout, is toweling off in the home clubhouse. In eight innings, he has allowed four hits and an unearned run.
On this August evening, that is good enough for a 3-1 victory. Pitching for the Missions, you never know.
San Antonio, a Dodger affiliate, has the best pitching staff in the double-A Texas League. The Missions also have the worst team batting average.
Delahoya has a record of 8-9 and 3.46 earned-run average. In six of his losses, the Missions have scored two runs or fewer. Three times they were shut out.
In his next start, Delahoya will pitch eight innings and lose, 1-0, to Wichita. The only run will come on a home run by Nate Cromwell, the opposing pitcher.
Now that’s a tough loss.
Delahoya, a fourth-round draft choice of the Dodgers in 1989, does not complain about his team’s anemic offense.
“It keeps you in the game and makes you concentrate because you know they’re not going to score a lot of runs,” he said diplomatically.
The Missions are Dodgers in training. Unfortunately for San Antonio pitchers, there are other similarities between the minor league club and its big league affiliate.
Against Midland, San Antonio shortstop Juan Castro makes a two-base error in the second and another miscue in the eighth that results in the Angels’ only run.
Delahoya pitches out of the jam in the second inning and, with a little luck, also might have escaped unscathed in the eighth. The only hit of the inning--a “Texas Leaguer” looped into right field--comes after Delahoya thought he had a strikeout with back-to-back pitches on the outside corner.
“That umpire was kind of tough,” he said. “He wasn’t calling the corners real well.”
Castro’s errors are mentioned. Delahoya shrugs.
“That’s what makes a pitcher, when you can get out of those situations,” he said.
Delahoya is more patient with his teammates than he is with himself.
Burt Hooton, former Dodger pitcher and San Antonio’s pitching coach, says Delahoya can be his own worst enemy.
“When he has trouble getting the ball down, he has a bad habit of trying to throw it harder instead of concentrating on why his location is off,” Hooton said. “He works himself up into a frenzy where no amount of reason is going to work. It’s frustration more than anything. He needs to learn how to overcome that and start using his mind.”
Delahoya’s minor league strikeout totals are deceiving. He has 423 strikeouts in 396 1/3 innings during his professional career, yet he does not have an outstanding fastball.
“He’s not a power pitcher, he just gets strikeouts,” Hooton said. “His fastball is below average, but he has a good slow curveball and his changeup is real good.”
Hooton, who enjoyed a 15-year major-league career thanks to an off-speed “knuckle-curve,” believes Delahoya can be successful in the big leagues if he improves on the basics of pitching.
In school, students have the three Rs. In baseball, pitchers have the three Cs: consistency, command and concentration.
“He has a lot to learn about himself as far as mechanics go,” Hooton said. “When he’s throwing pitches bad, he needs to be able to make his own adjustments without a pitching coach coming out there. He knows what his problem was if you ask him after the fact, but he doesn’t apply it out on the mound.”
In high school, and even during his first year pitching in rookie ball, Delahoya was able to overcome control problems by relying on his fastball. But as he progressed, better hitters caught up to him.
“Everybody here was a star somewhere,” Delahoya said. “You have to adapt to that. You can’t just throw. You have to use your mind and hit your spots.”
Lately, fatigue has required Delahoya to pitch with extra finesse.
“My arm is going down,” he says. “Even when everything is going well, in the seventh and eighth innings I can feel it. I think I just need a little rest.”
Two seasons of pitching for Mexicali in the Mexican Winter League apparently have taken a toll.
Delahoya, who carries only 162 pounds on a 6-foot frame, says he felt strong after pitching 105 innings last season for Class-A Vero Beach and San Antonio. He started well in Mexicali but struggled as the winter season wore on.
“I was a little weak,” he said. “I’m going to take this winter off and, hopefully, I’ll come back.”
Hooton, who doubles as Mexicali’s pitching coach, says he saw Delahoya at his best two years ago in Mexico.
“He was one of the top, if not the top pitcher in the league that year,” Hooton said. “He showed me what he was capable of doing. Now it gets down to whether he will allow himself to do that again.”
Or whether his arm will.
Against Midland, Royal Thomas, the relief pitcher San Antonio calls on to pitch the ninth inning, is welcomed by an appropriate song.
The chorus: “Hang on Snoopy. Snoopy hang on.”
Delahoya, who will make at least five more starts, must implore himself to do the same.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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