On a typical weekday afternoon the gates at Neuroscience Group Field are closed and it'll still be hours before fans come in to watch the Timber Rattlers play, but game preparations and off-day work are well underway for the players and coaches. Wednesday night's game wasn't scheduled to start until 6:35 pm, but the team was on the field at 2:00 to stretch before their daily workouts, and at 2:30 four pitchers headed out to the bullpen with two catchers and pitching coach Steve Cline to get some work in.
On this day Nattino Diplan, David Burkhalter, Trey Supak and Victor Diaz took to the bullpen's two mounds. Diplan and Burkhalter were on their normal schedule, throwing off the mound on the second day following their extended outings in Monday's game. Supak, who is scheduled to start on Friday, was getting an extra bullpen session in to stay sharp after recently skipping a turn in the rotation. Diaz was throwing off the mound for the first time in two weeks after going on the disabled list following his outing on May 3.
"Today I was just looking to get a good feel for it, since I had a little extra rest," Supak said. "Just trying to get a feel for all the pitches again. In and out with the fastball, feeling for the changeup, making sure it's down and moving and curveball, just getting the right spin and rotation."
Supak's regular turn in the rotation would have come on Sunday, when the entire Midwest League had the day off. A decision was made at that time to get Supak some extra rest and keep the Timber Rattlers' other pitchers on their regular routine.
"We have a great five-day program in place so basically, it was like I started on Sunday and Monday I started my day one workouts. So nothing really changed besides just not pitching in a game," Supak said.
In the bullpen on Wednesday Supak started by throwing fastballs out of the stretch position, as a pitcher typically would with runners on base. It's something Cline stresses as an important start to every bullpen session.
"We start out looking for a little rhythm, more than anything. When we first start out we're throwing fastballs. I have guys throw out of the stretch to start out with. The most important pitches you'll ever make in your professional career will be out of the stretch, so I like guys to start in stretch when we're doing a bullpen. But we're starting out with some rhythm, and then we get on to our other pitches," Cline said.
Over the course of about 15 minutes Supak threw all of his pitches, worked out of the stretch and the windup and worked with Cline on pitch sequencing.
"Going in hard, soft away, back and forth, stuff like that," Supak said.
"You're trying to find some rhythm, trying to throw the ball over the plate, obviously, and then you get your other pitches loose. You do the change, the curveball, then you do some sequencing. You practice some of the things that you're going to do in the game," Cline said.
Cline stood behind the pitchers as they threw, and occasionally had them pause to make a small adjustment.
"They're really very small," Cline said. "You're talking in terms of tracking the mitt with your head, you track the mitt with your eyes, those types of things. But you keep them very short, very simple. You're not going to be able to do any kind of overhaul, per se. So you try to go back to basics, you go back to rhythm, you go back to timing, you go back to some momentum, to help them get through their session but also carry it through to their game the next time they pitch."
The session was a little different for Diaz, who threw 25 fastballs as part of the rehabilitation for nerve irritation in his surgically-repaired elbow.
"There was no surgery involved from his shutdown, other than when he had the Tommy John surgery prior to the season, but there was some nerve irritation. So all we're doing now is getting him back to where he's asymptomatic," Cline said. "(Timber Rattlers trainer) Jeff (Paxson) and (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Ben Mendelson do a good job of getting him ready physically, of course Pax is probably the best trainer in baseball, so he's able to help those guys along and get them prepared."
Diaz missed most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons while recovering from the aforementioned Tommy John surgery, and said it can be difficult to wait for his body to fully heal before getting back on the field.
"Man, it's kinda hard," Diaz said. "Because you want to be out there, you want to compete every day."
Cline said the next steps for Diaz will likely include more bullpen sessions and a live batting practice before he's ready to return to the active roster.
"But we're looking mainly to be asymptomatic, nothing's flaring up and nothing's hurting while we're going through the process," Cline said.
"Right now I'm just trying to get healthy and get back on the mound as soon as possible," Diaz said.
Cline has been coaching minor league pitchers since 1981, and said the process between outings for pitchers has changed "quite a bit" over that time.
"You still do the bullpens, you still do your work," Cline said. "There was a time where we would do two bullpens in between: One would be a regular pen where you would work on your stuff, the other would be more of a delivery-type thing. We do something similar to that, but we use a net instead, so you're concentrating solely on what's going on on the pitching rubber and on the mound when you're working into the net, not worrying about where the ball goes. And then when you do your bullpen, which is usually the second day, it's when you're actually working on your stuff because you're trying to get the ball over the plate.
"So yeah, it's different, more so with quantity than anything. There's a difference of opinion on some of those things. Sometimes the old tried and true, old fashioned stuff works. Other times you have to limit guys depending on how many pitches they threw the last time, where you are in the season, all those things come into play."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.