Salem right-hander Justin Haley spends plenty of time preparing himself physically for each outing. These days, he's working just as hard on his mental approach as well.
Haley meets regularly with a coach who helps him visualize pitching successfully, keeping his emotions in check and going to the mound with confidence. The 23-year-old California native has pitched well this season in relief and in the rotation, where he's been the past several weeks, and is 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 19 appearances this season.
A sixth-round pick by the Red Sox in 2012, Haley posted a 1.89 ERA with Lowell in the New York-Penn League that year but struggled in the early part of 2013 with Greenville in the South Atlantic League. Looking to change his fortunes, he sought the assistance of a coach who focused on the mental aspects of pitching.
"That's when I really started turning around for the better," Haley said. "We go through visualizations, which make it easier when you're on the field. It's like you've already done it mentally. Being on the field should be the easiest part."
He pitched much better in the second half last season and finished 7-11 with 3.68 ERA. Haley struck out 124 batters in 124 2/3 innings in 2013 but also walked 74. This year he's struck out 74 and walked just 23 in 92 2/3 frames.
Haley posted a 5-2 record with a 2.05 ERA over 13 appearances in the first half of this season, starting five games, and earned a spot in the California/Carolina League All-Star Game. His 2.82 ERA on the season ranked fifth in the Carolina League after Monday's games.
Simply put, Haley's mental preparation has helped him more firmly believe in what he can do on the mound.
"I think confidence is a huge part of it -- just knowing you can go out there every time and bring your best stuff," he said. "If you have the confidence that you can go out there and perform at your best every time, then you can't be stopped."
Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker said there's no doubt Haley's mental preparation has helped him become a better pitcher.
"A lot of these guys have good stuff, but the ones who can be in a positive mind-set and not let the negative thoughts creep in, not let the fear of failure bother them, can [do better]," Walker said. "He's done that from April until now. He prepares very well."
Haley's become a big fan of visualization and mental preparation and thinks other players should strongly consider these techniques as well.
"I believe it's something that's very overlooked among baseball players," he said. "We need to take the time to mentally prepare. It's easy to do."
Homer, homer: Oscar Tejeda belted a two-run homer in the first inning and a walk-off solo shot in the 11th to give Potomac a 6-5 victory over Carolina on Sunday night. The performance made Tejeda the first P-Nats player to go deep twice in one contest this season.
All together now: All four Southern Division teams were locked in a tight race through Monday's action. Carolina had dropped six straight games, falling into a virtual tie with Myrtle Beach for first place with Winston-Salem just a half game back. Salem sat in last, but the Red Sox were just 2 ½ games out.
Gracious hosts: Frederick proved too kind to visiting Lynchburg on Friday, making four errors in an 11-1 loss. The Keys committed three miscues and hit a batter in the first inning while staking the Hillcats to six early runs.
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MiLB.com.