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Updated: August 19th, 2010 1:42am
Mackey: My apologies to Jesse Crain

Mackey: My apologies to Jesse Crain

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- OK, I need to come clean about something.

I wrote a Jesse Crain obituary on May 22.

The Minnesota Twins had just finished an East-Coast road trip to New York, Toronto and Boston, and Crain was pitching terribly, having allowed 13 earned runs in just 17 innings (6.88 ERA) up to that point.

This included multiple crooked-number performances -- perhaps most notably in Detroit on April 18 when Crain allowed three consecutive doubles with one out in the sixth, turning a 6-6 game into a 10-6 thrashing.

"I've been pretty good at digging myself a little bit of a hole to start the season," Crain said then.

"Obviously, with pitching there's a lot of confidence in it. And obviously when things are going bad you lose a little confidence."

Now, let me preface this by saying I like to think, perhaps mistakenly, that I generally refrain from knee-jerk baseball reactions. But considering Crain's abysmal start in 2009 (8.15 ERA before his demotion in June), combined with another early-season stumble this year, it seemed plausible Crain could be designated for assignment. Not likely, but plausible.

Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson continued to give Crain chances to turn things around, but he kept getting shelled throughout the first two weeks in May, which is why on May 22 I began hammering away at a "why can't this guy figure things out?" article.

Here's a snippet from the obit that was never posted:

Jesse Crain, a second-round draft choice in 2002 out of the University of Houston, is one of the most pleasant, approachable, mild-mannered guys I've encountered in a professional clubhouse or locker room. Even when he struggles -- which has been often over the last two years -- he speaks to reporters thoughtfully without complaining.

But, man. For the second straight spring, he seemingly can't get anybody out.

"You've just got to throw strikes," Crain said on May 5, just one week after allowing three straight doubles to the Tigers in the sixth inning of a tied ballgame -- each of them of the whiplash-inducing variety.

"I came in with the bases loaded against those guys (in Detroit) and they're swinging early. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. What you've got to do is go in there and throw strikes. That's what I try to do every time I go out there... If you throw strikes, more times than not you're going to get them out."

I couldn't help but sense a strong vibe of uncertainty, almost like Crain had lost his way and was trying to convince himself that he was on the right path, without really knowing where the path led to. If that makes sense.

Pitching coach Rick Anderson has worked feverishly to keep Crain "closed," meaning to keep Crain's front shoulder from flying open during his delivery. Yet, for whatever reason, Crain -- a seventh-year veteran -- can't seem to find the groove, and opposing hitters are teeing off on his 95-mph fastball.

It's probably not far-fetched to suggest Crain, despite his nasty repertoire of pitches, may soon need a fresh start elsewhere. Perhaps in the National League.

Funny how things have changed.

Since May 22, Crain has been the Twins' best relief pitcher, and probably one of the best relief pitchers in the entire league, allowing only three earned runs in 35 1/3 innings (0.76 ERA). He has struck out 33, walked 12, and allowed only 18 hits.

Crain went from being completely untrustworthy in any situation where the score was remotely close, to having a career year and being the Twins' most reliable bullpen arm.

Yes, Jesse Crain -- with his 2.75 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.11 xFIP and 7.82 K/9 -- is having a career year.

The change in production didn't just come out of nowhere. Crain works his ass off with Rick Anderson, and he even credits fellow reliever Jon Rauch with providing a mechanical tip.

"Rauch kind of mentioned something to me, and ever since then I've just taken it and run," said Crain, after adding another 1 1/3 scoreless innings to his collection on Wednesday night. "I can tell now finally when I'm rushing to the plate, and I know that if I stay back I can throw all my pitches for strike whenever I need to. I think that's the biggest thing. I've been keeping the hitters off balance. I can throw my hard fastball, but I'm able to throw all my breaking pitches for strikes, and I think that's made it difficult (on hitters)."

Crain's slider, specifically, has been a focal point over the last couple months. Folks may have heard FSN color commentator and former pitcher Bert Blyleven suggest at some point that Crain has added a cut fastball, but Crain says that's not the case. It's actually still the same old slider.

"I think the best thing about it is it doesn't do the same thing twice. One time it'll break more, one time it'll be more of like a cutter, which is why Bert calls it a cutter. So that's a good thing. A hitter doesn't know whether to swing under it or swing over it."

On Wednesday night, Crain was throwing a little bit of everything -- sliders, fastballs, curveballs, and even a couple changeups, helping the Twins to a 7-6 victory.

"I'm just in a good rhythm right now," Crain said, in what might be the understatement of the year.

"I can tell finally what I'm doing wrong and when I'm right. I've just been able to keep my delivery consistent, and I know as long as my delivery is consistent my arm is going to be there and my pitches are going to be there."

That level of self-awareness hasn't always been there for Crain, who first emerged in the big leagues back in 2004. He hasn't always been able to bounce back quickly from rough patches, just like he hasn't always been able to maintain consistency when pitching well.

But Crain finally seems to have reached a new plateau.

"He's not overthrowing the ball, he's managing the strike zone, he's commanding the ball in and out with all of his pitches," Gardenhire said. "This is about the best I've seen him do that. He's had some good years here. Right now I think he's throwing it as well as he ever has.

"He can throw any pitch at any time now. I think it's clicked."

So, for the obit that was never officially posted, my apologies, Jesse Crain.

Carry on dominating.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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