Ziegler hopes to avoid June swoon

Ziegler hopes to avoid June swoon

Ziegler hopes to avoid June swoon
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Brad Ziegler can essentially break his 2010 campaign into two parts -- June, and months not named June.

The A's righty opened the season with a combined 2.19 ERA and .200 opponents' batting average in 24 games in April and May. Similar numbers -- a 2.66 ERA and .217 opponents' average in 25 games -- came out of July, August and September.

June, though, was a different monster. Ziegler entered the month with a 2.19 ERA. A total of 15 appearances later, he was looking at a 3.65 mark -- the result of a 6.57 ERA and .339 opponents' average garnered in the 30-day span.

"It was terrible," Ziegler said. "I honestly felt like it was a really bad month of June, and if you take out that month, I had a pretty good year."

It was -- on the mound. Off, not so much. June, it turns out, mirrored the personal struggles Ziegler faced all year. A mysterious virus drained him physically, and a divorce from his wife of eight years depleted him mentally. Combined, both made his previous baseball struggles -- his 2004 release from the Phillies and a pair of skull fractures -- seem minute.

No year among his eight in professional baseball proved worse than 2010.

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"If you put everything together, there's no doubt," he said. "What I was going through off the field was the toughest thing I've had to ever deal with. It made everything else in my life more challenging, just from the standpoint of gaining emotional strength. I've been through difficult things on the field before, but It took me emotionally as far away as I've ever been at times last year."

There were days during the season when Ziegler spent nearly six or eight hours of his morning on the phone before heading to the field, his personal life consumed by divorce settlement papers and a legal push for balanced custody of his 3-year-old daughter, Kaylin. Then there were other days when he spent those six or eight hours in bed, following eight or 10 hours of sleep the night before, as he battled with his body for any dose of energy.

"All that time spent on the phone, and then trying to perform at the top level hours later, I didn't feel like it affected me while I was on the mound, but looking back on it, I'm not sure how it couldn't have," he said. "I didn't feel like myself on the mound last year. All the stress off the field may have led to some of the struggles I endured in the middle of the season and the severe weakness and fatigue I had."

The 31-year-old Ziegler went to doctors, underwent multiple blood tests and never really found answers for his worn-down state. He showed symptoms of mononucleosis, but the viral disease was ultimately ruled out.

"I gave it everything I had when I was out pitching," he said, "but I feel like there was so much going on that I couldn't be 100 percent."

It wasn't so much noticeable to the average eye, though, and Ziegler -- after offering up a home run to Ty Wigginton in Baltimore on the last day of that miserable June -- promised himself to turn the page come July. He rested up during the All-Star break and "felt really good after that."

It showed in the improved numbers, though Ziegler's woes against lefties were continually on display. The year saw him yield four home runs -- three to left-handed hitters -- in 60 2/3 innings after allowing just four in 133 frames over the first two seasons of his career. Lefties hit .317 off him; righties managed a .213 mark.

Unlike his problems off the field, his work against left-handers was something Ziegler could consciously attempt to control, or at least make better. And it's exactly what the reliever has deemed his focus this spring in an effort to make himself more versatile. He's even returned to a pitch he hasn't thrown since before his sidearm days -- the two-seam fastball.

"It's just a different look," Ziegler said. "Hitters might see a different spin on it. I'm trying to find something to create more movement and get the ball to sink more."

Much of that mindset comes from watching his opponents, particularly left-handers, hit the ball in the air. Ziegler in no way considers himself to be or is viewed as a strikeout pitcher. He knows his balls are going to be in play -- he'd just prefer it be via the ground ball unless fly balls are being hit the other way. Ziegler has been fairly successful this spring in that regard. But in turning his attention to lefties, he's somehow lost sight of the basics when facing right-handers.

"The last two righties I've faced have gotten an RBI single and a homer off me," he said. "That has to be something I focus on. I know what I need to do, but I'm working on what I would want to do to a lefty, even when I'm facing a righty.

"Throwing first-pitch sliders, it's not something I can't do, just something I haven't done in the past and I want to be able to do. There's times where I've faced a hitter this spring and it's not a good pitch to throw, but I want to throw it anyways just to work on it. I've given up a couple hits in the process or gotten behind hitters who I should just be attacking. I want to work on this now, so that when the season rolls around I'm confident with every pitch I'm throwing no matter the situation or the game or the count. I feel like I'm getting to that point."

In 6 2/3 innings spanning seven Cactus League games, Ziegler has offered up seven hits and two walks while tallying six strikeouts and a .269 opponents' batting average. He's quietly handed the team a consistent bullpen presence and is in line to join Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow as roster certainties come Opening Day.

"What's made him real good against righties, he's using that to alter his approach against lefties," manager Bob Geren said. "He's throwing the ball well."

"Moving forward, I'm really excited about what this year holds," Ziegler said. "There's a lot of reason to be optimistic. This year my goal is to start out in April, pitching like I was at the end of the year, and not have that bad month or even a bad week or two. I realize there's going to be outings when I give up runs, but as long as they don't string together and it becomes a habit, then I can go out and pitch with confidence."

Aiding in the positive approach is a new romantic relationship -- "it's keeping things peaceful and happy off the field," he says -- as well as large amounts of time with his daughter. The adversity faced in 2010 has, of course, lent him a welcomed perspective and a reminder of his old identity.

"One way or another, I'm glad that that's past me and I'm able to move forward and just kind of be myself," he said. "I feel like I have my personality back and my energy back, and hopefully that translates into better results on the field."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.