No longer hanging on corners, Mills is staying out of trouble Reliever learns to trust his stuff again, not nibble

Sidelight

August 25, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Alan Mills is coming up on the one-year anniversary of a day he tries hard to forget.

Aug. 30, 1995. That's the day Mills had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, the one that generates his fastball.

The 29-year-old reliever hasn't been the same -- until recently.

Mills pushed too hard in spring training, trying to prove he was physically sound, and started the season on the disabled list. He worried about his velocity. Instead of just rearing back and throwing, as he did before he injured his shoulder, every pitch had to be within an inch of the corner of the plate.

Every outing was like Game 7 of the World Series.

"In the past, before I had surgery, if I got hit, then I just got hit,"

Mills said. "It was part of the game. I could basically shrug it off. But after the surgery, when I got hit around, I started to doubt my ability, whether or not I had good enough stuff to get hitters out. Then I began to pitch for the corners all the time. Every pitch had to be perfect."

His ERA topped out at 6.00 in June. Mills struggled again in early August, allowing eight earned runs and seven hits over five outings (six innings).

Since then, he's sparkled in the bullpen during a time of upheaval. With right-hander Roger McDowell gone for the year, left-hander Arthur Rhodes on the disabled list and a group of inexperienced youngsters filling in, Mills has become a reliable alternative.

He has not allowed a hit or run in his past 3 2/3 innings, a span of five outings, since taking the loss Aug. 11 in Chicago. Mills has retired the last seven batters he's faced, five on strikeouts, and struck out two of the three batters he faced on Friday, his most recent appearance.

"I had to come to the realization that if I get hit, I just get hit," Mills said. "You can't treat every pitch like an 0-2 pitch. I did that until very recently, and when I would get hit once, it would mess me up for the next two or three times out."

Mills talked his way through his problems with virtually anyone who would listen. He discussed his pitching flaws and mental approach with Cal Ripken, Chris Hoiles, Brady Anderson, bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks and pitching coach Pat Dobson.

Mills, whose wife is expecting a baby any day, listened closely to their advice. Dobson informed Mills that his velocity was in the mid-to upper 90s, not the low 90s as the pitcher believed. Dobson also emphasized the importance of each success and tried to instill renewed confidence in the pitcher.

Hoiles urged Mills to stop aiming the ball and just concentrate on making good pitches.

"Any time you come back from surgery, you always have flashbacks to where you were before," Hoiles said. "It seemed like he tried to put every pitch in an inch-and-a-half spot, and that's very, very hard to do. He's done a lot better job of using more of the plate and just getting ahead of guys the last two or three times. Nothing breeds confidence better than success."

Mills knows there are still improvements to be made. He carries a 4.30 ERA, he's walked 33 batters in 37 2/3 innings and has allowed 29 hits, including six homers. But in his last 23 games, dating to June 21, Mills carries a 3.47 ERA.

"I don't look at it like I'm behind the hurdle or over the hurdle," Mills said. "Baseball is a constant battle. It never ends."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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