Reds turn up heat, pressure in hitting drills

March 13th, 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Two pitches, two chances -- that's it.

On a couple of occasions this spring, the Reds didn't just have a regular session of batting practice on one of their practice fields. For one thing, the hitters involved wore helmets -- which the team doesn't normally do. And instead of a coach grooving pitches from about 50 feet, it was coach and former Reds pitcher Mario Soto dishing heat from about 40 feet behind a screen and providing the younger generation a glimpse of what he might have been like to face in 1983.

"Mario was throwing gas," Reds shortstop Zack Cozart said. "It was probably like facing [Aroldis] Chapman."

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Each hitter in the cage was given two tough pitches from Soto and a specific situation to execute with a runner on base.

It could be runner on third base, with the infield in. The hitter needs to get the ball up in the air. Or a runner on second base with no outs who needs to at least be advanced with a ball to the right side. And whatever is coming from the pitcher won't likely be easy to hit.

"I want guys to learn how to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable," Reds hitting coach Don Long said. "Because there will be many days throughout the year where you don't feel locked in at the plate. The point is, in those moments, are you still competing? Are you finding a way to perform and execute in the situations we're providing them?

"When you're feeling good and the ball looks big, that usually takes care of itself. But we're trying to prepare a little bit for the contingencies."

The Reds ranked 25th out of 30 teams last season in team hitting, and were 30th in hitting with men on base and hitting with runners in scoring position. The team's offense was further depleted with the trade of Todd Frazier as the club works to rebuild for the future.

Long introduced this type of hitting drill for the first time this spring. Cozart liked that it resembled a game situation more than just BP.

"We have a lot of young guys in camp. Not that they don't compete, but you want to keep telling them, 'No matter what we do around here, whether it's taking infield or playing '27 outs' [drill] and going through situations, you want to compete and execute,'" Cozart said. "When you don't, you learn from it and move on. There have been positive reviews on it. It takes the monotony of coming out here and changes it up."

Soto doesn't always bring the gas. Back in his day, he also had a good changeup and he featured it from time to time.

"Ah, cambio," one coach behind the cage said, calling out the Spanish word for changeup after Soto threw the off-speed pitch.

"Now it becomes less about technique and more about 'Hey, I've got two shots to get this guy in from third, I better be ready to compete and that's it,'" Long said. "It's interesting when they first do it with him throwing that hard. They first think 'Whoa, that's hard.' Then they're behind and shoot balls foul. Then by the end, they figure out a way to compete and get the job done. Everything else goes out the window. It's 'I'm here to get a job done.' That's the reality of the game.

"That's our effort to make it competitive but also put you in a situation with it's not just a round of five [throws] trying to get the guy in from third. You've got two shots, here it is. It's challenging. Let's see who handles that and figures it out, who competes with it."

Long first had the hitters do the drill with Soto pitching on March 7. On Saturday, Soto threw again, but this time to Reds pitchers hitting in situations to either bunt or swing away. Again, they only got two pitches each turn.

Another duel with Soto is slated for Tuesday. The hope is the hitters will be more conditioned for a tough starting pitcher, a hard-throwing middle reliever or the 98-100 mph fastball with movement that can come from closers like the Cardinals' Trevor Rosenthal.

"You used to want to get to the middle guy, but that's not necessarily true anymore," Long said. "Those guys have good stuff and throw hard. You've got to learn how to deal with it. You learn a lot about yourself, too, when you're put in that situation. Can I find a way to get the job done?"