Josh Spence sat in the Tucson Padres clubhouse recently, keeping one eye on the TV. Former Arizona State teammate Mike Leake was pitching for the Cincinnati Reds against San Diego and Spence was keeping tabs.
In an ideal world, Spence would have been watching in person, rather than on a screen.
In fact, one year ago it looked like a safe bet that Spence would be in the big leagues, competing against his former teammate and friend, Leake.
The relief pitcher was promoted to San Diego after just 71 1/3 minor-league innings and made an instant impact for the Padres. Spence allowed one earned run in his first 25 outings (spanning 21 1/3 innings). Major-league hitters, the best in the world, were hitting .103 against the left-hander and he was becoming a reliable option for manager Bud Black out of the bullpen.
Then, everything changed and Spence is starting to figure out why. He gave up eight earned runs over his next 8 1/3 innings, good for an 8.64 ERA.
“It can get very humbling up there very quickly,” said Tucson manager Terry Kennedy before Sunday’s 20-3 loss to Omaha at Kino Stadium. “He’s working on some things now and trying to get back to that level.”
Spence has thrown 30 2/3 innings for Tucson this season and is starting to show his old form. The hurler, born in Victoria, Australia, has put up scoreless outings eight of his last 10 times he was called on.
The Star chatted with Spence about his desire to get back to last year’s form.
When you look back at last season, what do you think the biggest reason for your dip in production was?
A: “One thing last year, I was physically ready to pitch at that level, but there are things you have to learn on the way up about dealing with the game that I never learned. I was lucky to be in the right spot at the right time and get called up. But, I feel like I’m learning lessons now that I never learned. I’ll be better for it in the long term. I also took some things for granted and I’ll be the first to say that. I didn’t fully appreciate where I was.”
What have you been doing to get back to the level you started your big-league career at?
A: “I’ve been going back to the basics. That’s been the biggest thing. I’ve been throwing all my pitches and trying to give the hitters more things to think about. Lefties know they’re going to get sliders against me, so I’m trying to mix it up a little. It’s definitely helped me, getting back to what worked.”
What about the mental aspect of the game? How are you improving on that?
A: “I had always been a starter. It’s easier to flush things when you have some time, three or four days, to tinker with things. When you are a reliever, you don’t have a lot of time. I think that’s been something that’s hard for me. It takes a little more to bounce back. On a personal level, it’s been better on the mental side lately. Unfortunately, it’s a little later in the season.”
Do you appreciate where you’re at more now than you used to?
A: “When you really step back, there aren’t a lot of 23- or 24-year-olds in the big leagues. I was lucky to be there and I want to be back. I’m very lucky to be pitching at the level I am and I’m just trying to take everything in more now and enjoy it all. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m getting there.”