I was recently asked which pitcher should make the start if the Royals made it to the Wild Card game. The first name that popped into my head was Jake Junis, and here’s why:
On Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Jake Junis threw 5 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and one run. In the month of August, Junis is 3-0 with an ERA of 2.96.
Now here’s what the Royals’ other starting pitchers have done in August:
▪ Jason Vargas: 1-4, 7.11 ERA
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▪ Jason Hammel: 1-2, 4.80 ERA
▪ Danny Duffy: 1-2, 5.48 ERA
▪ Ian Kennedy: 0-4, 9.57 ERA
The Royals have 31 games left this season, so a lot could change between now and then, but lately Jake Junis has been the Royals best starting pitcher.
Wouldn’t you want a more experienced pitcher to start the season’s most important game?
Maybe, maybe not.
When George Brett was asked why he performed so well in the clutch, Brett said it was because, when he was going good, he could forget that it was the World Series and approach an at-bat the same way he approached every at-bat.
Some guys couldn’t do that; they felt the pressure of playing in the World Series.
A more experienced pitcher might think about all the hard work it took to get to a Wild Card game, how much his teammates were depending on him and how much each and every pitch meant. And during a game, those thoughts are not helpful.
A less-experienced pitcher might not think about any of that and just concentrate on hitting the mitt.
The myth of rising to the occasion
Most of us have never played sports at a high level, so our ideas about performing at a high level might be inaccurate.
Hollywood tells us that important games are won by the hero getting knocked down and then rising again, more determined than ever. So the hero kinda cared about winning before, but now he really wants to win and tries harder than ever; the hero rises to the occasion.
And, generally speaking, that’s not how it works.
Former big league pitcher Orel Hershiser was broadcasting a Little League World Series game when his broadcasting partner asked if the kids had to learn to rise to the occasion.
I can’t remember who Hershiser’s broadcasting partner was, but I remember what Hershiser said: the kids could try to rise to the occasion or they could just play the same and let everyone who was feeling the pressure play worse.
Talk to the people who know and they’ll say the clutch player isn’t the one who tries harder. If trying harder is the secret to winning, why not try harder all the time?
Because trying harder rarely works.
The clutch player is the guy who approaches every situation — spring training or World Series — the same way. The clutch player is the guy who gives a consistent effort no matter the situation.
Don’t look down or up
I grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons and fans of the Road Runner know one thing for sure: It’s OK to walk off a cliff as long as you don’t look down. Look down, realize your situation, and you’ll fall.
Oddly enough, it works the same way in sports.
When Luke Hochevar was about to make his major-league debut, he was warned not to look up. Hochevar left the bullpen and jogged to the mound wondering what that last bit of advice meant.
Hochevar then walked up the mound and did exactly what he’d been warned not to do: he looked up, saw the size of the crowd and the stadium and thought: “Oh, *#@%!” It took Hochevar a moment to get back to what he needed to focus on; the catcher’s mitt. Thinking about anything else was counterproductive.
So if Jake Junis can avoid looking down or up, keep pitching the way he’s pitched in August and carry that same approach into the postseason, you might want him pitching in a Wild Card game.