Failure had always been something for others to cope with and attempt to overcome.
Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Kyle Drabek had mowed through batters his whole life. He was 30-1 at Woodlands (Texas) High School; a first-round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006; and dominated at every minor league stop.
But last season, after a good beginning that included 5 ⅓ innings of no-hit ball in his first start, Drabek lost his lease on success. He would finish the season 4-5 with a 6.06 ERA in 18 games with Toronto, and go 5-4 with a 7.44 ERA once demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas.
The ace in waiting spent his September call-up time in the Jays’ bullpen.
He went home to Texas with doubts he’d never before experienced. What did he do to re-charge, re-coil and hopefully return to his front-end rotation starter form?
“I’m fortunate to have a dad who played,” said Drabek, whose father, Doug, won 155 games and the 1990 National League Cy Young Award for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Dad just told me, ‘Forget about it, but learn.’ Yeah, his approach was to look at it as a lesson. And that enabled me to learn more about the game. I’ve learned that when you fail, there is always the next day.
“I was frustrated every inning, every game. And it did not help me; it hurt me. My dad said, ‘On the mound, don’t show the other team that you are down or frustrated. That will lift them up, and they’ll take advantage of it.’ ” Drabek, like the other pitchers, was limited to one inning Saturday in his Grapefruit League debut. But that one inning allowed him to test his father’s advice.
Yamaico Navarro led off the second inning for the Pirates by reaching on an error by shortstop Yunel Escobar. Then Drabek walked Nate McLouth on four straight pitches, and the table was set for more failure.
But Drabek kept his emotions in check. He heard his father’s words in the back of his head and didn’t let them see him sweat.
“You’ve got to slow the game down at those points,” Drabek, 24, said. “Last year, I would just work faster. I did it out of frustration, and because I wanted to get in the dugout quickly so my team could get some runs back for me.
“But I’m learning to counter that by just taking my time. Breathing is a big part of that. I just step off the mound and take a few breaths.”
Drabek came back to get Pittsburgh’s Jake Fox to hit into a double play and got Gorkys Hernandez on a called third strike to end his inning.
“He kept the inning together,” said Toronto manager John Farrell. “… He didn’t become tentative. That’s what we’re focusing on with him – how he’s responding to adversity.”
It was just one game, but it was a step in the right direction.
Farrell also was pleased with the fact that the mechanics Drabek has focused on since arriving Feb. 1 were in proper alignment. The Jays have placed yellow ropes from both edges of the pitcher’s rubber toward home plate to keep him focused on a centered landing for his delivery.
Drabek said the only pitch where his mechanics failed was ball four. He can’t take the ropes out to the mound in games, but said, “I still draw a little line myself for the landing spot I want.”
Plenty of pitchers have failed for the first time in the majors and recovered to achieve their expected greatness. Justin Verlander was 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA for the Detroit Tigers in 2008. Three years later, he went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a no-hitter against the Jays en route to winning the Cy Young and MVP awards.
And Drabek’s father was just 18-20 after two seasons.
Now the son has taken a deep breath, felt the relief of releasing it along with a failed season, and taken steps to be the pitcher everyone envisioned when obtained in 2010 as the focus of the trade that sent two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay to Philadelphia.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Drabek said, “and of course they are going to miss him. It’s not like I took his spot. But I would like to make a name for myself, just be my own self.”
Special to The Globe and Mail