By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – Shane Dawson is in a class of his own.
Not the type of pitcher who might typically be considered a prospect, the soft-tossing left-hander originally selected in the 17th round of the 2012 draft is in double-A New Hampshire for the second straight season, trying to learn from his successes and failures to keep working his way up the Blue Jays ladder.
After going 10-4 with a 4.22 ERA in 26 starts and 134 1/3 innings for the Fisher Cats last year, with 72 walks and 95 strikeouts, Dawson knew it was likely that he was returning to Manchester, with unfinished business to attend to.
“I felt like I had a lot to prove after what I did last year, walking a lot of guys, and just not really being completely healthy,” the native of Drayton Valley, Alberta said. “I felt like I had a good spring training, and I feel like I’m really putting good building blocks underneath my feet to set myself up to be in a good position.”
Just beginning to understand how to cope with the strains of full-season baseball and what they can do to the body, Dawson reworked his winter routine. The 23-year-old went longer without throwing, not picking up a baseball until the middle of December, and spent more time running and playing basketball, working himself into peak physical condition so that this season he could focus on his progression on the mound without having any health issues.
“I just wanted to take what I did last year and learn from it,” Dawson said. “Not beating myself up whether I have a good outing or a bad outing, and really locking in my command and staying within my delivery. I feel like last year I had some command issues early, and I fought an uphill battle against myself to get back on the right track.
“So this off-season I really focused on being able to repeat my delivery every single time, and bringing that into the game. So far, it’s been and up-and-down battle. I’ve had times where I’ve had great success on the mound this year, and I’ve had times where I’ve gotten run off the mound, but that’s part of the process.”
Through nine starts this season, the southpaw has posted a 6.16 mark over 49 2/3 innings, walking 14 and striking out 24. In all but three outings, Dawson has thrown at least six frames, completing seven on one occasion. In those six appearances, he owns a 3.65 ERA over 37 innings, with 18 strikeouts and a 1.11 WHIP.
“The only difference is the location of pitches,” he said. “When I’m good, I’m down in the zone, my changeup is down in the zone. And when I’m bad, I’m out of the zone and they can keyhole me for a pitch in the zone. I’m a pitcher who has to be able to command the bottom part of the strike zone exclusively, and not really leave pitches up, being a guy who throws mid-80s.”
Fisher Cats pitching coach – and native of Halifax, Nova Scotia – Vince Horsman understands that Dawson’s struggles are something that the young pitcher can work though, and believes that he will find his way back to what makes him successful.
“Shane is getting a little flat,” Horsman said. “With the type of style he pitches with, angles are important. The last couple of games, he’s gotten a little flat and hitters are seeing the ball really well, and they’re taking advantage of his mistakes.
“He’s shown some flashes of really good games. Obviously the first game put him behind the eight ball because he got knocked around [for eight runs], but he’s been okay since then. He’s working on trying to create a little more leverage, and hopefully he continues with his improvements, and it will show in the games.”
Continuing his evolution as a hurler, Dawson knows that he has already taken strides in his game, and that every perceived struggle is just an opportunity to learn and get better.
“For the most part, it’s being able to not try and do too much on the mound,” the young lefty said. “I feel like in my younger years, I would step on the mound with my hair on fire and go up there trying to kill everybody, and beat everybody to death, instead of letting them beat themselves and staying calm on the mound. So it’s just having a thought process out there instead of being blind.”
Gaining age and experience, and playing with older teammates – both within the Blue Jays organization and with Team Canada – Dawson has already made some progress with his on-field demeanour, and understands that he needs to continue to find ways to improve.
“It just happens with growing up; learning that every game is not do or die,” he said. “Learning how to deal with certain situations better, and that’s something I’ve really struggled with. I feel like I was always a very over-passionate guy on the mound. When I did well, I showed it on the mound, and when I did poorly, I showed it on the mound. Especially these past two years, I’ve tried to limit my blow-ups, I guess I would say, and the [expletives], but it just comes with growing up.”
Of course, there are some do-or-die situations in which every game matters, like when Dawson was playing for the national team in the Pan Am Games on home soil in Ajax, Ont., where the squad eventually won the gold medal, and, on the other side of the coin, in this year’s World Baseball Classic, where the lefty and his Team Canada teammates were eliminated from the tournament without a win.
“The thing that separates those international events from these seasons is you know you can go in there and if you have a bad outing, your teammates will pick you up,” Dawson said. “Numbers don’t really matter except for winning, in those international events.
“It’s a lot more selfless than it is here. That’s what I try to bring into the season is being as selfless as possible, not being me-oriented as much as I can, because it is a team game. When the team wins, it makes everybody look better than when you’re on a bad team and you’re the only one doing well.”
Though the experience of the Classic wasn’t quite everything Dawson and his teammates had hoped it would be, he still gleaned a lot from the event and through his conversations with some of the more knowledgeable hurlers on the squad.
“I learned from the veteran guys, Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne and all the other guys who I had played with before,” Dawson said. “Watching the way they prepare, and I got to bounce some questions off of Dempster and Gagne, especially Gagne being a guy who had a really good changeup, and that’s kind of my thing. I learned a lot from that.
“I talked to Dempster about how to get ready for games and how to game plan for hitters. Being a guy who was out of the game for three years, and being able to come back and compete at that level, even though it probably wasn’t the level he wanted to compete at, it takes some pretty big balls to go out there and do that. That’s something I really admired about him. He came in every day like it was his job again, and that was really inspiring.
“And being in that atmosphere, it gives you an opportunity for if and when you do make it to the big leagues you’re not going up there naked. You’ve already had that experience of dipping your feet in the water.”
Enjoying his short trip to Marlins Park in Miami with Team Canada, and cherishing the gold medal he earned two summers ago, Dawson is excited at the idea of hopefully suiting up in the red-and-white uniform again one day.
“I told Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] before, anytime you want me to go, I’ll go, whether it’s as a water boy or whatever,” he said. “I just want to be there. If I can help the team win, great, and if I’m there to be a cheerleader on the sidelines, I’ll do it. I don’t care. It’s just that opportunity to have the name of that country that you live in across your chest. Not a lot of people get that opportunity, so I’ll take any chance I can get.”
But until that day comes once more, Dawson is focused on his time down on the farm with the Blue Jays, hoping to work his way out of New Hampshire sooner than later.
“What I got ready for is to try to make it to the big leagues this year, not so much the WBC or for the Pan Am Games two years down the road,” Dawson said. “The biggest goal in baseball, regardless of what anybody will tell you, is to make it to the big leagues, so that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”