The mental edge (Baseball)

David Morrison

Intimidation.

A hitter pointing his bat at the pitcher when he intends to smack one back through the box. A pitcher letting loose some chin music to make the guy who’s crowding the plate back up a little bit.

In a sport with as many components as baseball, controlling the mental aspect of the game could be a key to success.

Northwestern coach Paul Stevens said he’s never really bought into the impact of intimidation on the baseball diamond.

“When USC or Texas walks into Bemidji State for football, that’s intimidation,” he said. “I don’t know that, at least from a baseball standpoint, I’ve ever been intimidated by anybody.”

But he does believe in his players not letting themselves be intimidated.

“As a competitor, you’ve got to believe that you’re just as good as somebody else,” he said. “You know what you have inside of you that makes you tick. Whether it’s in a fight or a competition, you’re going to do everything you can to take it to somebody.”

While all of the Wildcats (14-23, 11-5 Big Ten) are in different stages of learning mental toughness, Stevens said junior pitcher Dan Brauer has shown him the most composure.

Brauer, who sat out last year after surgery on his left arm, is 4-1 this year with a 3.60 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 60 innings.

He hasn’t yielded to the bullpen in Big Ten play, with four complete games in four starts.

He said he tries to win the mental game in a more subtle way than the approach he’s seen in other pitchers.

“A lot of people try to psyche the opponent out by being overly aggressive and sometimes that leads to throwing less strikes and not being able to get hitters out,” he said. “Maybe I’m rattled on the inside, but I try not to show that.”

Brauer said he tries to show batters the same face in all situations, no matter whether he just struck out the side or gave up a grand slam.

“You can tell when a pitcher’s uncomfortable on the mound,” he said. “If you mess it up, just act like that’s the first time it’s ever happened to you.”

Brauer and junior George Kontos, the Cats’ No. 2 pitcher, control the mound during weekend doubleheaders for NU. The team is 7-1 in conference play when one of them pitches.

From the hitter’s standpoint, senior Pat McMahon said he overcomes intimidation by not thinking about it.

“Confidence is a huge part of baseball,” he said. “If you let the pitcher get in your head, you’re not going to be successful.”

Lately it seems like McMahon is the one getting in pitcher’s heads. Over the last five games, he’s hitting .421 with 5 RBIs.

Brauer has the advantage of seeing the game from both sides. He’s seen action as a hitter in 13 games this year and has responded with a .290 average.

He said his two roles give him an “interesting perspective.”

“You’ll be pitching really well and think to yourself, ‘how can anybody ever hit?'” he said. “If you’re doing well in the batter’s box, you think ‘how am I going to get these guys out?'”

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