PITTSBURGH (AP) -Ian Snell, one of the NL's best starting pitchers before the All-Star break and one of its least effective since, is taking a new approach to his between-games routine: He's throwing at his pitching coaches.
Not intentionally, of course, even though Snell and pitching coach Jim Colborn were spotted exchanging words in the dugout several times this season.
The right-handed Snell (7-10) looked to be on the verge of becoming one of baseball's best young starters when he was 7-5 with a 2.93 ERA at the break. Although he didn't make a public issue of it, Snell was upset at being left off the All-Star team despite numbers that were comparable to some of the NL's best starters.
But Snell is 0-5 with two no-decisions and a 6.69 ERA since the break, allowing four earned runs or more four times despite lasting as long as seven innings only once. He has been troubled by the home run ball, permitting nine homers in those last seven starts, and some flat breaking pitches.
The Pirates also felt Snell was too reliant on a fastball that tops out at around 97 mph and with constantly going after hitters on pitches down and away. Snell admittedly had problems throwing inside, so he rarely attempted to make a pitch over the inner half of the plate.
To get Snell accustomed to working inside without worrying about hitting batters, Colborn and bullpen coach Bobby Cuellar stand in the batter's box as Snell throws between starts. At least Cuellar did until he was hit with a couple of pitches.
``It was tough to begin with because I didn't want to hit anybody,'' Snell said. ``It's just something I haven't done. I've always pitched away. I had to get over the fear of hitting someone.''
While Snell still hasn't won since beating Milwaukee 5-3 on July 4, manager Jim Tracy saw progress with the way he pitched Tuesday night against the first-place Mets. Snell gave up three runs and eight hits but didn't walk anybody and struck out seven over seven innings in a game the Pirates eventually lost 5-4.
``He got several outs over the inner half of the plate,'' Tracy said. ``That was really great to see. It makes such a different when you can use both halves of the plate and make hitters expand their strike zones.''
Tracy can only hope this is another step in the maturation of the 25-year-old Snell, who wasn't considered a prime prospect coming out of his Delaware high school and was only a 26th round draft pick in 2000. After going 57-20 in the minors, he was 14-11 with a 4.74 ERA last year during a season in which no NL starter won more than 16 games.
``If he continues to move forward with this, you could very well see him take another step. He has the potential to be very, very special,'' Tracy said.
Snell is encouraged because he sees progress and, because of it, is beginning to regain his confidence.
``I've always been kind of afraid to throw inside because I didn't want to hit anybody,'' Snell said. ``What I'm learning during these bullpen sessions is I can throw strikes without hitting people. I haven't hit Colby yet.''
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