OAKLAND, Calif. — On a sun-splashed Friday afternoon at the O.co Coliseum, home to the Oakland A's, Chris Archer laced up his spikes, took his glove and a water bottle to the bullpen mound and pitched to Mike Trout, Erick Aybar, Mark Trumbo and the rest of the Angels lineup. “That's the way I handle my business,” Archer said before throwing his between-starts bullpen session. So much of Archer's game is about visualization. Visualizing throwing the right pitch in the right count against the right hitter. Visualizing the hitter's reaction. Today, one day before he faces the Angels in Anaheim, Archer will throw 10 or so pitches in the bullpen, then visualize himself throwing another 50 to make himself feel as prepared as possible to take the mound against the actual batters.
“I was throwing bullpens in high school and simulating, this sounds crazy, I was simulating facing Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton,” Archer said. “I was simulating facing these people in high school. Why would I change anything now?” Here is one thing Archer has not visualized this season: Winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. “I only think about it when someone asks me about,” he said. And how often is that? “Not often,” he said. But Archer, who turns 25 this month, is quietly building a case for himself. He has become one of the more dependable starters on a team known for starting pitching. He heads into Monday's start 8-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 17 starts. Those eight wins are tops among American League rookies, and his 2.81 ERA is tops among AL rookie starters. No other AL rookie has thrown two complete games, let alone two complete-game shutouts. His 102ß innings are the second-most among AL rookie pitchers. He and David Price have been the Rays' most dependable starters since July. And because manager Joe Maddon said Archer will finish the season without any pitch-count or innings restrictions, Archer will play a big role in the playoff chase. Most of the Rookie of the Year talk this summer centered around another North Carolina product who came to the Rays in a blockbuster offseason trade. And Wil Myers seemed like a lock to reach the lofty preseason goals set by pundits who thought before the season began that the only question surrounding Myers' Rookie of the Year pursuit would rest on when he made his major-league debut. But Myers' recent slump has taken some shine off his candidacy, though he certainly can rally with a strong September. Meanwhile, the deep-thinking, well-read Archer is preparing himself for the most intense month of his baseball career by preparing his mind as well as his body. He will pitch more innings this year than he has in any of his eight professional seasons. He never has pitched deep into September because the minorleague seasons don't run that long. And he never has had a starring role in a big-league pennant race. Archer's takeaway from his first extended run in the major leagues is this: “I've learned the power of the mind,” he said. “I knew what it could do for me away from the game, and this is the first year I learned how important it can be for me in baseball.” He has learned that if he's not 100 percent committed to an at-bat, the batter will, without fail, reach base. He has learned to be 100 percent committed to each pitch during each start, and he has to be committed to each throw he makes between his starts. “People say practice makes perfect. No,” Archer said. “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Yogi Berra said 90 percent of baseball is half mental. Archer said it's all mental. Also, it's all physical. “So it's 100 percent/100 percent,” he said. And Archer mixes both as he prepares for his next start. Not only is he honing his pitches during his bullpen sessions, he's trying to retire the major-league hitters he visualizes standing at the plate. The Rays were preparing Friday to play the A's. Archer headed toward the bullpen to face Trout and Co. “I'm going to face all of them right now in my mind,” he said. [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO