FORT MYERS — Jake McGee took the mound Tuesday during the fourth inning for another inning of work this spring, and up stepped David Ortiz.
The left-handed McGee was hoping to face a left-handed batter Tuesday when the Tampa Bay Rays played the Boston Red Sox. Having faced three righties in his first outing this spring, McGee was itching to throw his curveball to a left-hander. Who better than Ortiz, Boston's left-handed slugger?
McGee's first pitch was a curveball in the dirt. It drew a check swing from Ortiz. Strike one.
“It's still early in the spring, but it was definitely a good start,” McGee said.
McGee put his curveball on the shelf in 2010 in favor of a slider when he moved to the bullpen at Triple-A Durham. But looking for more separation from his high-90s fastball, McGee has pulled the 11-to-5 curveball out of the mothballs.
“Jake can really spin a ball,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Even a couple of years ago when I first saw him I thought that curveball had some potential, but you hear otherwise. It was a hard pitch for him to command.”
A couple of years ago, McGee was a young pitcher taking his first steps at the big-league level. He thought he could get by with two speeds — fast and faster. Now, after 185 relief appearances with the Rays, McGee realized that slower can be better, especially when he can change the plane of the ball crossing home plate.
“Now I realize the importance of it,” McGee said. “Fastball is always going to be my No. 1, go-to pitch.”
And No. 1 will look a lot better with a good No. 2.
“It doesn't always have to be this magnificent curveball,” Maddon said. “Can be a get-me-over curveball. Can be a different look. Throw it in the right count when the hitter isn't looking for it and you can pick up a nice strike and put another thought in the hitter's head. That's what you're trying to do.
McGee threw the curveball from the time he entered the Rays organization in 2004 until the move to the bullpen in 2010. But he never really understood why he was throwing it. To him, it was nothing more than a secondary pitch.
“I didn't know how to use it,” he said.
But with age comes experience and wisdom. At least that's what Maddon hopes.
“I'm hoping he's able to understand it better, what he's trying to do better, and with that he's going to have a better feel for it this time through,” Maddon said.
McGee can throw the curve for a strike or use it to get a batter to chase. He can throw it during the first pitch of the at-bat, catch a hitter off guard and get a strike, making his fastball more effective in a 0-1 count. Maddon said it can be more effective than a waste pitch in a 1-1 count. It's not a bad two-strike pitch when a hitter is looking for McGee's 97-mph fastball.
“When (McGee's) fastball is right, and it's right about belly button high, he's going to get a lot of swing-throughs,” Maddon said. “I kind of like it like that. But there's going to be days when he doesn't have that going on and just to throw something else, which has to be a strike once in a while, otherwise the hitter will just say forget about it. So to gain a feel for that pitch as a strike takes a little pressure off the other pitch, puts more thought in a hitter's head and then he becomes more difficult to face.”
McGee throws a four-seam fastball that he can locate to either side of the plate against lefties and rightes. He said that's the perfect way to set up the curve.
McGee threw three curveballs during his first outing against the Pirates. All three missed the strike zone. But he noticed the hitters froze each time when he came back with his fastball.
Against the Red Sox, McGee started Ortiz with a curve and threw it four more times during his one inning.
“That first pitch was a really good one,” catcher Jose Molina said. “Then he threw a couple that weren't so good. It's a work in progress, and he will continue to throw because I'm going to call it, and I know he wants to throw it. It's going to be a huge, huge pitch for him during the year.”