LAKELAND, Fla.—Tigers lefthander Austin Sodders had by far his worst start of the season on Wednesday. He allowed five earned runs on six hits and two walks in 5.1 innings for high Class A Lakeland in a loss to Bradenton (Pirates). This, after not allowing more than three earned runs in any of his previous 17 starts.
When Flying Tigers manager Andrew Graham came to the mound in the sixth to remove Sodders, the 22-year-old southpaw’s body language was nondescript. He didn’t slump his shoulders or slam his glove or beat up a water cooler. Instead, he calmly walked back to the dugout, gave his teammates a few high-fives, removed his hat and glove and took a seat.
Judging solely by Sodders’ demeanor, it would be nearly impossible to tell what kind of day he had. That’s by design. He’s worked hard since his days at UC Riverside to keep a consistent outlook no matter the results. To achieve that goal, he’s learned to be a studious worker on the days he doesn’t start.
“I do a lot of visualization stuff, just a lot of mental game stuff that helps me throughout each and every day to get ready for my next start,” said Sodders, the Tigers No. 9 prospect. “That’s just something that’s worked for me. It doesn’t always work for certain guys, but I’d say that before the game I visualize pitches I want to execute and things like that. Every day I write down stuff I need to work on.”
Even after a night like Wednesday, there were some good things to put down in his journal. His first two innings were brilliant. He had Bradenton flummoxed with his mix of a high-80s fastball, low-80s changeup and mid-70s downer curveball. He commanded all three pitches and induced weak contact through two efficient frames.
In the third, the Marauders still didn’t square Sodders, but they got to him nonetheless. A few bloops and bleeders led to two runs via a sacrifice fly from leadoff man Mitchell Tolman and a surprise squeeze bunt from second baseman Logan Ratledge.
Sodders re-settled himself after that and worked perfect fourth and fifth innings before he lost his command in the sixth inning, got hit hard and surrendered three more runs while retiring only one hitter. That inflated his ERA to 1.62 overall, still the third-best overall in the minors.
There was plenty to like and plenty to work on after Wednesday, and Sodders will make sure to take plenty of notes.
“My curveball was pretty good today and I executed some good fastballs glove-side,” Sodders said. “Those are things I’ve gotten better with that I need to continue to get better with. In the sixth inning I could have done a better job of slowing the game down, stepping off the mound more and just being more detailed with my pitches.”
The details are particularly important for Sodders. With a repertoire that won’t overpower hitters, he has relied on command and the little details to take him up the ladder since being drafted in the seventh round a year ago.
“He mixes his pitches well. He’s got a good changeup he can throw in any count, and he’s working on his curveball,” Graham said. “That’s something he’s really got to develop and he has been lately. He’s used it more in certain counts, but he needs to use that more to go to the higher levels. Commanding his pitches is the main thing. When he doesn’t command his pitches, that’s when he gets in trouble.”
Sodders, whose father Mike was the first College Player of the Year in BA history back in 1981, has made a few tweaks to his game that have helped him go a combined 9-4, 1.62 between low Class A West Michigan and Lakeland. Specifically, he’s raised his arm slot from the low three-quarters it was in college to a more traditional high three-quarters slot. That, he says, helps him drive the ball down through the zone. When he had the lower slot, he had a tendency to miss up to his armside.
He also scrapped a slider he had in college, opting instead to hone his curveball. The pitch was inconsistent on Wednesday, but at its best showed hard bite away from lefthanders. He’s worked hard on a few mechanical changes, including the raised arm slot and a focus on staying smooth through his delivery. He’s seen the results throughout the year.
“I think my breaking ball has gotten a lot better and I’ve gotten better at executing pitches more consistently to both sides of the plate,” he said. “I throw inside better and my changeup has been more consistent as well. It’s just repetition every day. You’ve just got to trust it and it will get better.”
Throughout his first full professional season, Sodders has taken copious notes and spent hours in the video room analyzing what he’s done well and where he could stand to improve. The result has been one of the best seasons in the Tigers’ system.
NEWS AND NOTES
• Bradenton reliever Geoff Hartlieb entered in the seventh inning and got the final eight outs. The Pirates’ 16th-rounder out of Lindenwood (Mo.) showed a low-to-mid-90s fastball with wicked two-seam life at times. He complemented the pitch with a mid-70s curveball that had wipeout potential. He hasn’t been particularly consistent this year, but Wednesday night’s outing showed why the Pirates took a flier on him.
• Ratledge had a big game, going 3-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs. The North Carolina State product and Pirates 13th-rounder two years ago has become a utility player as a pro, playing second base and all three outfield spots this season. He particularly impressed against Lakeland reliever Eduardo Jimenez, turning around a mid-90s fastball in the ninth inning and shooting a double just inside the third-base line to bring home Bradenton’s final run.