Butcher Clears Mind of Troubles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time we saw Mike Butcher, he was going bonkers in Baltimore.

At least that was Manager Buck Rodgers' succinct description of Butcher's performance April 21 when he threw a pitch a foot behind the head of Oriole second baseman Mark McLemore, hit Brady Anderson and gave up four runs while recording just two outs.

It wasn't a case of crazy-for-a-day, either. Butcher's earned-run average after that outing was 16.62, not exactly what the Angels were hoping to see from the man projected as their closer.

It was all only mental, everyone insisted. Butcher, who had eight saves and struck out 24 in 28 1/3 innings in 1993, underwent season-ending arthroscopic elbow surgery last September. He brought the same fastball and the same mean streak to spring training, but somewhere along the way, he lost his way.

He couldn't throw a strike when he wanted, and all too often, he admitted, he didn't want to. "I'm trying to catch the corners and I'm no nibbler," Butcher said at the time. "And I really don't know why."

The Angels decided a bit of desert air might clear his mind, so on April 23, they sent him to join their triple-A affiliate Vancouver on swing through Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tucson. Butcher seemed to find himself. He had five opportunities to save games with Vancouver and recorded five saves, giving up one earned run in 5 2/3 innings.

Then Brian Anderson suffered a broken thumb and Butcher was recalled Saturday to help bolster a depleted bullpen. He immediately was pressed into duty and retired all six Oakland hitters he faced in the Angels' 7-4 loss to the A's on Saturday night.

On an evening when the teams combined for 20 hits and every out seemed to be a line drive or a fly ball to the warning track, Butcher put down the A's in the eighth and ninth innings on four groundouts, a fly ball to center and a strike out--against former Angel Stan Javier to end the game with an exclamation point.

"Butch pitched very well," Rodgers said. "That was the big plus we got tonight . . . and there weren't many of them. He was smooth. He had good velocity. He was throwing all his pitches. He looked like the Mike Butcher who ended up the 1993 season.

"It looks like his mental rehab is over."

Butcher doesn't cringe at that assessment of his assignment to the minors.

"Two days before they sent me down, I had made the decision to start enjoying the game again," Butcher said. "I had stopped allowing myself to enjoy the game because I was so frustrated."

Vancouver pitching coach Gary Ruby helped with healing process by not getting into any detailed discussions about mechanics, arm position or pitch selection. He just told Butcher to go throw.

"We didn't really work on anything," Butcher said, "and I didn't change a thing down there. I just went back to trusting my stuff and concentrated on going out there and having fun."

Was he worried that his early season struggles would keep him in the minors, no matter what he accomplished?

"To tell you the truth, that never entered my mind," Butcher said, smiling. "And, to tell you the truth, I didn't really care. I was having fun again."

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