Thursday Dish: Pirates’ Lincoln Shows Good Stuff Opposing Rays’ Davis

DURHAM, N.C.—While neither Pirates righthander Brad Lincoln nor Rays righty Wade Davis were particularly dominant in a game at Triple-A Durham on Sunday, Lincoln showed two above-average pitches and encouraging signs of progress.

Indianapolis pulled Lincoln after he racked up 72 pitches in four innings, with Lincoln departing having allowed two runs (both coming in the fourth inning), six hits and no walks to go with one strikeout.

“I felt like I pitched well until I got in a jam in the fourth inning there and was able to get out of it with minimal damage,” Lincoln said, “but my pitch count got kind of high so they went ahead and pulled me from the game. Something that I need to work on is being more efficient with pitches and getting guys out early in counts. But for the most part, most of my stuff was working. I was able to not walk anybody and make them put the ball in play.”

Lincoln, who at 24 is 6-foot, 215 pounds with a strong lower half, was the fourth overall pick in 2006. Tommy John surgery cost in April 2007 cost him the entire ’07 season, but on Sunday Lincoln showed a 90-93 mph fastball, touching 94 and working mostly down in the zone.

Lincoln’s arm strength returned last year, but this season his curveball has finally gotten back on track. Lincoln’s 79-82 mph curve had late, sharp break with tight rotation, giving him a second above-average offering.

“It’s come a long ways,” Lincoln said. “Last year it didn’t really have the bite, the crispness to it; it had more of a loop in it. It wasn’t really a strikeout pitch, but this year it’s got the downward action that I’ve had. It has been the last thing to come back, but it’s developing and getting better every time I go out. Not only am I able to throw it for strikes, I’m able to put it in the zone or put it as a putaway pitch for a strikeout.”

A common refrain in player development is that when pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery, there is a mental aspect to the recovery that they need to overcome. Some pitchers are afraid to snap off a breaking ball after returning to the mound.

“For the first few months or so, you want to make sure that it is all right and it’s not going to snap,” Lincoln said.

“It’s still in the back of your mind, like this is maybe the pitch that got me to where I had to have surgery, so I might hold back a little bit and it might not be as good as it can be. But now I’m to the point where I don’t think about it any more. I just throw it and it works for me.”

Using the same grip he had in college at Houston, Lincoln showed a firm 84-86 mph changeup with occasional split-like action, though it’s his No. 3 pitch and remains a work in progress.

“That’s probably been my biggest bump I’ve had to go over this year, is not only making it a good changeup but throwing it in the game,” Lincoln said. “I’ve got to get to where it’s a weapon of mine that I can use in a hitter’s count and get a guy on his front foot or something like that and just be confident in it.”

Another common saying in player development circles is that arm strength usually returns before a pitcher’s control and command come back after Tommy John surgery. Yet while Lincoln is still refining his command like nearly every minor league pitcher, he’s been a prolific strike-thrower ever since he returned to the mound last year.

“It felt good just to get back out there on the mound and be able to compete,” Lincoln said. “That’s what I do. I see myself as a control pitcher and throwing strikes. That’s what I’m doing. Now I just need to work on more of the command of pitches, where I locate them instead of just throwing them in the strike zone. Especially as you get up at this higher level, you’re going to have to be able to do that.”

The outing put Lincoln’s Triple-A ERA at 4.58 through seven starts with 21 strikeouts and eight walks in 37 1/3 innings. Lincoln began the year with Double-A Altoona, where in 13 starts he had a 2.28 ERA and a 65-18 K-BB mark in 75 innings.

Davis Trying To Take Command

The good news for Davis: in 5 2/3 innings, he struck out eight batters and kept the walks to a moderate two. The bad news: he allowed five runs on seven hits, showing that his command is developing.

"I just didn’t get ahead and make good pitches when I fell behind, so they took advantage of it," Davis said.

"I didn’t feel like I pitched very well. I felt good, I had good stuff, but I just fell behind a couple times. Not really mistakes, just they knew it was coming and they hit the pitch."

Davis, 23, has shown a plus fastball all season, and on Sunday he worked at 92-94 mph and touched 96 multiple times while mixing in a two-seamer as well.

Some scouts who have seen Davis this season say that his curveball has flashed as a plus pitch, but it’s been inconsistent in terms of its quality and his command of the pitch. Davis’ curve ranged from 75-82 mph on Sunday, though it was at its best in the higher end of that range with power and sharp break.

On the season, Davis has a 3.32 ERA through 126 1/3 innings and has averaged 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings, though he’s also walked 3.7 batters per nine.

"He got hit today, that’s all I can say about it," said Durham manager Charlie Montoyo. "He still battled … but they hit him pretty good.

"He almost looked like he was pitching away from contact at one time, throwing 3-2 sliders and stuff like that. That was disappointing, but he battled."

Davis didn’t throw much of his changeup, a pitch he said he hopes will come around eventually. Instead, his mid-80s slider (a pitch he began using at the end of last season) is becoming his third pitch, showing more depth as the season has progressed.

"It’s coming along good," Davis said. "My last couple starts I really didn’t have it, so today it was more of a cutter that I was trying to stay behind a little bit more. It wasn’t moving quite as much, but I didn’t get hurt on it and I got some outs on it."