Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

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Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Phillies reliever Jake Diekman used a performance-enhancing substance in 2013.

Relax. It was completely legal.

“This is the stuff,” Diekman said.

He pointed to a box of Dubble Bubble chewing gum that was sitting on a table in the Phillies’ spring-training clubhouse.

“I can’t chew anything else,” he said. “I grab about 20 pieces and stuff them in my pocket before going to the bullpen.”

In the dark season of 2013, Diekman was a bright spot. The hard-throwing lefty sidearmer developed the four Cs of relief pitching -- composure, control, confidence and cojones -- and is on everyone’s list of potential difference makers as the Phillies look to end a two-year playoff drought and get back to the postseason in 2014.

It seems as if every successful big-leaguer can point to a time in his career when everything began to click. For Diekman, the click happened Aug. 19 when he channeled the anger caused by a blown umpiring call into a 99-mph fastball and a game-saving strikeout.

Diekman, 27, believes he was able to harness his emotion that night because the game stopped moving in fast-forward for him last season.

He credits his performance-enhancing substance for that.

Last spring training, Diekman began chewing bubble gum when he pitched. He got away from it for a while then started doing it again during side work at Lehigh Valley.

Over time, he realized something. His focus and concentration improved when he chewed gum. Everything seemed to slow down and become more manageable. He was still in the high-speed lane of major-league baseball, but no longer did it feel as if everything was whizzing past him.

“For some reason, it makes me think less,” Diekman said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”

Though not scientifically proven, there are theories that suggest chewing gum can increase oxygen to the brain and therefore improve alertness and concentration.

Diekman is a believer.

“I don’t get super sped-up anymore,” he said. “Now it feels weird if I don’t pitch with gum. I threw my first bullpen here this spring without it and I was lost.”

While Phillies officials will gladly provide Diekman with all the bubble gum he needs if it means he pitches well, the biggest reason the game slowed down for him last season can be boiled down to one word.

Experience.

Diekman pitched in 32 games in 2012, his rookie season, and 29 more last season before he heard the click on Aug. 19. He had just come into a one-run game in the eighth inning against Colorado at Citizens Bank Park. There were two outs and runners on first and second when umpire Jim Joyce called Diekman for a balk. The next day, Joyce told Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg that he was wrong to have called the balk. But that didn’t help Diekman at the time. The balk call put runners at second and third with the game on the line.

Seething inside, Diekman turned his fury into a weapon. He blew a 99-mph fastball by Nolan Arenado to end the Rockies’ threat and help propel the Phillies to a win.

“I got (ticked) off,” Diekman said. “A base hit would have lost us the lead. I just said to myself, ‘Go right at him. Attack the hitter.’

“When you first get called up to the big leagues, you have to know you’re here for a reason. You have to believe that you can pitch here. That was the turning point for me. After the balk, I felt like, ‘I can pitch up here.’ I felt like I pitched with fire after that.”

Fire and bubble gum.

After the balk game, Diekman made 15 more appearances out of the bullpen for the Phillies last season. In 14 innings, he allowed just six hits and one run. He struck out 17 and walked four.

That finish is a big reason Phillies officials believe Diekman can be a force this season.

Of course, Diekman would not even be here if it weren’t for a stab-in-the-dark delivery change suggested by minor-league pitching coach Bob Milacki in the summer of 2009. At the time, Diekman was in low Single A ball. He threw straight over the top and was pretty much headed nowhere. During a bullpen session, Milacki suggested Diekman try throwing sidearm. The pitcher was put on the disabled list so he could practice the new delivery.

“I got put on the phantom DL to work on it,” he said. “It was the worst experience of my life. Shin contusion. I had to fake being hurt for two weeks and it sucked.”

Turns out the worst experience of Diekman’s life changed his life. For the better. The new arm angle added deception to his delivery and velocity to his fastball. He went from the low 90s on the radar gun to the high 90s. His career took off.

“I’d be home somewhere if I didn’t make the change,” he said.

Along with his blazing fastball, Diekman has a power slider and he’s working hard on his changeup this spring. It’s not difficult to envision Diekman closing games somewhere down the road. He certainly has the stuff. But for now, he will be asked to get important outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

“It doesn’t matter what they ask me to do,” Diekman said. “I just want to pitch.”

And when he does, you can be sure he’ll be chewing bubble gum.

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies' roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies' roster

TAMPA, Fla. -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.