- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

NEW YORK | The pitcher Mike Hinckley is now barely resembles the one he once was.

He has been humbled by failure, detoured by injuries, molded by coaches and confronted by the reality that his dream of pitching in the major leagues, which seemed so certain when he arrived at the Washington Nationals‘ first spring training with the full favor of coveted prospect status, was slipping away.

But this version of Hinckley, still as unassuming as ever off the mound but just a little bit nastier on it, is commanding attention.

The 25-year-old, who made his major league debut Sept. 2 after more than three years of languishing in the Nationals’ minor league system, is pitching out of the bullpen, a role he accepted in spring training as his best chance to reach Washington. Working with an overhauled delivery that has him pitching with more of an edge, Hinckley has thrown 6 1/3 scoreless innings with the Nationals, continuing the success he had in the minors and raising the possibility he could make the team next spring as a left-handed specialist.

Even in the last few weeks of a season with a last-place team, baseball’s routines are still somewhat surreal to Hinckley, such as when clubhouse manager Mike Wallace handed him his first bat with his name engraved in the barrel.

Hinckley looked it over, took a couple of swings with it and sighed.

“I’m just thankful to be here,” Hinckley said. “I’m going to come out every day and work my butt off and treat it like it’s the last day I’ll ever play in the big leagues.”

Where those words might sound trite coming from some players, they don’t with Hinckley, partially because of how long it took him to make it.

Hinckley was the Nationals’ top young starter in the spring of 2005, a holdover from the Montreal Expos’ farm system deemed virtually untradeable.

General manager Jim Bowden said that spring Hinckley had a chance to make the team, but early struggles and his eventual assignment to the minor leagues left Hinckley so distraught that he took a day off from camp to bring his family to Walt Disney World and sort things out.

“I went in there thinking I had a really good shot to make the team based on the year I’d had [the] last year,” Hinckley said. “I never got myself going, ended up getting hurt, just not feeling right, and everything snowballed for the last three years.”

Shoulder surgery at the end of the 2005 season caused Hinckley’s velocity to dip as he struggled in 2006 and 2007, and when the Nationals decided to remake him as a reliever this spring, he arrived at Class AA Harrisburg throwing and acting timid.

“He was afraid of contact,” Harrisburg manager John Stearns said. “Early in the count, he was trying to nibble. He was afraid to throw a strike, thinking a three-run homer was going to get hit every time he threw a strike. Inevitably, he’d be behind 2-1, 3-1 to everybody.”

That’s when Stearns, Class AA pitching coach Rick Tomlin and roving instructor Spin Williams set out to change Hinckley’s delivery, correcting his tendency to let his weight slip forward during his windup and teaching him to lean back while loading up and explode over his front foot.

It helped Hinckley’s fastball nudge back into the 91-93 mph range for the first time since the surgery. And more than that, it provided the framework for him to attack hitters again.

“Mike is now on the mound, ready to pitch with a purpose,” said Nationals catcher Luke Montz, who started the year with Hinckley in Harrisburg. “He got a little fire in his butt, started throwing the ball inside. If he gets ahead of a hitter, he’s not afraid to fire the ball inside.”

The new delivery got Hinckley moving toward the majors again. And a chance outing in front of assistant general manager Bob Boone provided the opening.

Boone came to see Harrisburg starter Justin Jones pitch July 6 in Altoona, Pa., and after Jones hit the Senators’ 40-pitch limit in the first inning, Hinckley replaced him and allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings.

He was on his way to Class AAA Columbus 11 days later.

“At that moment, Bob Boone was there in the stands to see me pitch really well, so everything kind of worked itself out,” Hinckley said. “I can’t even tell you what happened in that game.”

Hinckley is now pitching in situations that matter, such as when he struck out two of the three Mets hitters he faced during the sixth inning of a tie game Wednesday night. And he could fight Charlie Manning for a spot out of the bullpen next year.

“It’s only been a couple innings, but Mike has come a long way from falling off the map here,” manager Manny Acta said. “In spring training, I told him, ‘Right now, it doesn’t look like you are who you were a couple years ago,’ meaning prospect status where they were going to be opening a spot for him to start. It was not the last option, but it was another option we wanted to explore.”

Right now, it looks like the option that could permanently unlock Hinckley’s career.

“I think he’s gotten over the hump. Hopefully he’ll never have to go back to the minor leagues and he’ll have a 10-year career,” Stearns said. “He certainly has made a statement about who he is. We’re all extremely happy about it.”

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