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Fresh start for Robby Rowland

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Robby Rowland is eating and breathing baseball these days, but the two-sport star from Cloverdale High never has basketball far from his mind either, especially this time of year.

“My bracket is still perfect,” Rowland said on the first full day of the NCAA men’s tournament. “And I’m about 99 percent sure it will be perfect through the first round. Granted, I filled out about 137 brackets … ”

That’s Robby Rowland, always maximizing his odds. The difference these days is that he really has to go the extra mile. Back when played in the North Central League, everything seemed to come easy for Rowland, whether it was on the mound or in the paint. Now he’s another young pitcher trying to get noticed at the Arizona Diamondbacks minor-league spring training camp.

For once, Rowland is the underdog.

In 2009-10, his final year at Cloverdale, he broke the Redwood Empire basketball career scoring record in the winter — he ended up with 2,548 points — then posted an ERA of 0.24 in the spring, throwing a perfect game and another no-hitter for the Eagles. His 6-foot-6 frame and live arm enticed Arizona to select him in the third round of the 2010 amateur draft.

But the numbers Rowland put up last year while playing for the Missoula Osprey (a Rookie League team in Montana) bear little relation to that prep superstar. As a second-year minor leaguer, he went 2-7 with a bloated ERA of 8.07. He gave up 15 home runs in 68 innings. Even more troubling, it came after a decent rookie debut that saw Rowland go 4-6 with a 5.67 ERA in 2010. Adding to his stress, he also had to deal with the decision of his older brother, Richie, to give up on his own baseball career.

“I was only 19, but I had the worst thoughts in my head: ‘Oh, man, what if they don’t like me anymore?’” Robby said by phone from Scottsdale, Ariz., where the D-backs share a state-of-the-art facility with the Colorado Rockies.

It was a rare moment of doubt for an athlete with contagious optimism. Thanks to a series of mechanical adjustments, though, the positive outlook is back.

After a brief playoff run by the Osprey and an even briefer visit home last year, Rowland was off for a stint in the Fall Instructional League. It was there that Mel Stottlemyre Jr., Arizona’s minor league pitching coordinator and the son of noted Yankees hurler Mel Stottlemyre, took Rowland under his wing.

Stottlemyre Jr. told Rowland to stop worrying. “We all have bad outings,” he advised the pitcher. More important, Stottlemyre started breaking down Rowland’s mechanics.

When he pitched for Cloverdale, Rowland could simply overpower hitters with his 94-mph fastball. At the urging of his father, Rich Rowland, who caught for parts of six seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox, Robby had always accentuated his height by coming straight over the top with his delivery. It wasn’t working in the Rookie League, where hitters had the bat speed to catch up to the ball. Under Stottlemyre’s tutelage, Rowland changed his motion — more of a three-quarters arm slot, head straight on the vertical plane, more drive from the core and legs.

It didn’t come naturally. After a few days of intense video study and on-the-mound tinkering, Rowland was struggling to stay low. He felt like he was throwing sidearm, or even submarine. Then, during yet another bullpen session, Stottlemyre spontaneously cracked the code. “Throw it like you would throw the ball at shortstop,” he instructed Rowland.

Huh?

“I know you probably played some shortstop,” the coach said. “You were a multi-sport athlete, right? Well, throw the ball like a shortstop.”

Standing back of the mound, Rowland made a fielding motion and threw across the diamond. “I picked up the ball and let ’er rip,” Rowland said. “And the ball came out hot. You know, with some zing to it. Everyone stopped and looked, like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

“OK, now just do that off of a hill,” Stottlemyre said.

Rowland spent a frustrating two weeks throwing in the bullpen and watching film, with no game action. When he returned to the field, he pitched about 10 innings and gave up just one run.

“Instead of throwing a straight ball at 93, 94 (mph), you try for a little sink at 89 to 91,” Rowland said. “I developed more groundballs. It makes it so much easier, just letting the ball do its thing. If you watch guys like Roy Halladay or Derek Lowe or Tim Hudson, they’ve got those late two inches of movement.”

Rowland returned to Cloverdale for several months, but never stopped working. During the previous winter, a particularly wet season, he had frequently thrown inside the Redwood Empire sawmill. This winter, he was able to throw outside — and yes, he got his dad to catch for him.

“The old man still straps it on,” Rowland said. “He’s had a few broken thumbs, a broken ankle, but he’s still out there.”

Rowland reported to spring training with other Diamondbacks rookies on Feb. 25, but he was feeling crummy. Perplexed for several weeks, he was finally diagnosed with mononucleosis. An established veteran probably would have shut it down for a while. Rowland had no such luxury. He pitched through it.

“The other day, my dad was asking me how I felt after I threw a bullpen session,” Rowland said. “I told him, ‘Honestly? I don’t know what my 100 percent feels like anymore.’ But I can’t feel sorry for myself. You have to put yourself in a position to succeed.”

Sure enough, Rowland’s first live action of the spring was encouraging. He pitched two innings without allowing a hit or run against minor-league talent on Tuesday. (If you want to follow his progress on Twitter, he's @robbyrow_12.)

Rowland’s path remains unclear. Last year, the Diamondbacks asked him to stick around for extended spring training. He’s not sure whether that will happen again this year, or if he will end up back at Missoula. He just knows he’s ready to put 2011 behind him.

“It sure tested me,” Rowland said. “But I’m still breathing, I’m still putting on my uniform every day. I’m growing, as an adult and as a baseball player. I’m always learning something. And hopefully, Lord willing, things will work out and I won’t have another year like that.”

And that’s the beauty of baseball. Spring always brings a fresh start and a chance at reinvention.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.