By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
BUFFALO, New York – Casey Lawrence has spent his fair share of time convincing people.
From persuading the baseball coach at Albright College – in the Division-III Middle Atlantic League – to let him try out for the team while pursuing his basketball scholarship, to proving his worth on the mound enough to warrant his first big-league spring training invite this season, to being the scheduled opening day starter for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Lawrence has become a compelling story.
His opening day start against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins never came as he was scratched in favour of Jarrett Grube. Lawrence was off to the airport on his way to Tampa, Tropicana Field in St. Pete's and a spot in the Blue Jays bullpen after Francisco Liriano retired one hitter Friday.
The 29-year-old right-hander from McSherrystown, Pa. knows that he has been on the baseball path less travelled, and hopes that he can continue to break new ground as he fights for a shot at the highest level.
“There are not that many [Division-III baseball players in Triple-A],” Lawrence said. “It’s definitely a pleasant surprise. I went from the basketball player that I was when I first got recruited to go to Albright, and then kind of spoke to the baseball coach and got him to allow me to try out for the team, that’s where that was. It’s always nice. The first thing I do when we play teams is see who’s from Pennsylvania, and the next thing is, is anybody else from Division III? It’s tough to find.”
Able to sway Albright’s baseball coach, Lawrence walked onto the team and was named Freshman Athlete of the Year. While he averaged over six minutes a game with the basketball squad, totalling 19 points to open his collegiate career, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound righty went 5-0 with a 2.70 ERA in nine games and 53 1/3 innings for the Lions on the diamond, walking seven and striking out 52.
“My freshman year, it was just one of those things where I was a basketball player, and I wanted to keep playing baseball,” he said. “I had a really good freshman year, improved from where I was in high school. I wasn’t a big-time college basketball player either by any means, but I kept getting better. Then I kind of hung up the basketball sneakers and concentrated on baseball. I think I made the right decision. I don’t think I could play in the NBA.”
Signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as an undrafted free agent after his senior year at Albright, where he majored in business marketing, Lawrence has spent the last seven seasons working his way up the ladder, never spending an entire season with just one affiliate. The hurler has racked up 63 wins in 169 games and 964 innings, posting a 3.83 mark with 629 strikeouts, and after a strong spring, is in the Buffalo rotation.
“I’m definitely excited,” Lawrence said before he was promoted. “With the five starters we have in there, [Mat Latos, T.J. House, Brett Oberholtzer and Grube in Buffalo] it’s almost like picking a name out of hat right now. There are a lot of guys in there who can take the ball and go out there and give us a solid six or seven innings, or whatever we’re going to need here. It’s an honour.”
Lawrence was looking to get off to a better start with the Bisons than he did last year, taking the hill just three times in April and allowing 13 earned runs over 12 2/3 frames with more walks than strikeouts as he made adjustments to his delivery.
“I got off to a bad start,” he said. “I was working with a little bit different mechanics, and it just took a little bit more time than maybe I thought it was going to. So going back down there [to Double-A] and working with [Fisher Cats pitching coach] Vince Horsman and trying a couple things out, it kind of took off from there.”
When he returned to Buffalo after his temporary demotion to New Hampshire, the right-hander posted a 1.78 ERA over five starts and 30 1/3 innings in July. Lawrence followed in August with a 3.41 mark in six starts and 37 frames, totalling 14 walks and 46 strikeouts over both months.
“I sped up my delivery a little bit,” he said. “[Hall of Fame hurler] Pedro Martinez is the kind of guy who I watch a lot of video of, and the way he generated momentum toward the plate. So I incorporated a couple things that he would do, and it kind of clicked for me. I worked on it a lot this spring and had some good results, so now it’s just trying to carry it forward into the season…
“I just started stepping back a little bit further out of my windup. So my first step [back], just generating a little bit more momentum when I step back, almost like a rubber band, back and then forward, in turn to speed up the arm. But a lot went into it.”
Implementing the mechanical changes was a work in progress for Lawrence, who became frustrated when he wasn’t getting immediate results.
“It was really hard,” he said. “There was a start in Altoona, Pennsylvania – and my family is about an hour-and-a-half from there, and they were at the game – and I gave up six runs in four innings. I talked to them after the game and I said, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I’m embarrassed going out there, and not giving my team a chance to win.’ I was just at my wit’s end with it.
“And Vince Horsman sat me down and he said, ‘Just give it a little bit more time. We’re seeing improvements.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ But it was a testament to him and believing in me, and Rick Langford believing in me, and then in turn, me saying I’m going to trust it, let’s go. And then the results came, thank god.”
In retrospect, it’s easy for Lawrence to see that he came out on the right side of his struggles, but at the time he didn’t completely understand the process and where and what it might lead him to.
“You sit there and you look at the line at the end of the day and it’s four innings, six runs, and you’re going, ‘What did I accomplish today?’” Lawrence said. “And then for him to say, ‘We see improvements,’ it’s something where early in my career – the first six or seven years – they really didn’t touch my mechanics at all. I just went out there and pitched. So it’s a first for me, making an adjustment like that, but it was definitely eye-opening when they said they were seeing it. I thought okay, maybe it’s there…
“You’ve got to trust it. I mean, it was one of those things where Vince was big on it, and our pitching coordinator at the time, Sal Fasano, was in on it, and [current pitching coordinator] Rick Langford. They said it would take a little bit of time. And a guy like me, I’m looking to go out there and win ball games and compete, and I was a little impatient with it at first. But then I bought into it and my results spoke for themselves.”
As his delivery has developed, so too has Lawrence’s mindset on the mound.
“I’m definitely pitching differently,” he said. “I’m more aggressive in the strike zone, and able to throw the ball by guys, where before I really had to rely on my command. At first, when I made the adjustment, my command wasn’t what it was before, and after about four or five starts, it was ugly. Then once my command kind of came back, with the velocity, that’s when things took off.
“It’s still a chess match out there every time, but to be able to go out there and be more aggressive, and in the bigger part of the strike zone, it’s big. Getting strike one for any pitcher is big, but the added velocity and the sink on my fastball, [I have] the confidence to go out there and attack hitters a lot more than I have in the past.”
Named Buffalo’s Comeback Player of the Year last season, Lawrence brought the success he found midway through last year into exhibition play this spring, and is hoping to keep it going as the season gets underway in the International League.
“I was a guy who really had to pick the zone and really change speeds,” he said. “Now I’m able to elevate in the strike zone a little bit and move it around. I’ve always been able to pinpoint it really well, and now, early in the count, I can attack early and go to the plate. Then go to my bread and butter and use the corners and elevate when I can, and go from there.”