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Colorado Springs Sky Sox pitchers, manager discover true effects of altitude

By: AARON REISS aaron.reiss@gazette.com
July 6, 2015 Updated: July 6, 2015 at 4:05 am
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photo - Sky Sox Manager Rick Sweet (left) and Sky Sox catcher Nevin Ashley talk about a disputed play during a game against the Memphis Cardinals at Security Service Field on Sunday, July 6, 2015. The Sky Sox lost the game 7-3. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
Sky Sox Manager Rick Sweet (left) and Sky Sox catcher Nevin Ashley talk about a disputed play during a game against the Memphis Cardinals at Security Service Field on Sunday, July 6, 2015. The Sky Sox lost the game 7-3. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette) 

Rick Sweet didn't anticipate this.

Sure, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox manager knew his pitchers would have more difficulty here than in Nashville, home of the Milwaukee Brewers' last Triple-A affiliate. But having elevation lessen the break of pitches as much as it does, requiring pitchers to tweak their release points and pitch locations as much as it has? He didn't realize altitude's effects would be this severe.

"Frustrating is probably a good word," Sweet said before Colorado Springs' 7-3 home loss to the Memphis Redbirds on Sunday.

Saturday, the Sky Sox surrendered 15 runs. And on the season, Colorado Springs' team ERA (5.25) is the third worst in the Pacific Coast League.

The altitude presents an obstacle in pitchers' development, Sweet said. The elevation is unlike that of anywhere else the prospects pitch in Triple-A, and, if they get to the majors, it's unlike Milwaukee, the town they'd call home.

"With young guys, we're trying to develop that consistency," Sweet said, "then we throw them into an environment that's totally inconsistent."

"When Colorado was here, it makes sense," Sweet added. "It's the perfect environment for them because they're getting ready for the big leagues. For us, it sets us back a little bit."

Sky Sox reliever Rob Wooten made his major-league debut at Coors Field and didn't give up a run. In his first game of the year at Security Service Field, he allowed one. He wondered why everyone hyped up the difference elevation makes. Then, in his next outing in Colorado Springs, he gave up three home runs in 11/3 innings. The Sky Sox allowed 16 runs in that game.

"I was trying to throw stuff nasty," Wooten said, "and it ended up backfiring on me."

Wooten, who spent part of last season with Nashville, said that's an easy trap to fall into for pitchers when their stuff isn't working like they want it to at elevation: they try to throw harder, make pitches break off bigger and strike hitters out. They end up getting behind in counts.

After that early season game, the Sky Sox pitchers had a meeting. Sweet told them not to worry about their numbers being inflated; the Milwaukee front office knew where they were pitching.

Technology the team has tells coaches when a home run is a "true" homer, Wooten said, and when it's a ball off the end of the bat that carries in the altitude. When it's the latter, the Sky Sox know they need to brush it off.

Wooten heard more of the same when he was in the majors earlier this season: decision makers in Milwaukee were "taking our statistics with a grain of salt."

So he's learned to go out and trust his pitches. And to accept that his balls might break less than they do elsewhere.

The Sky Sox pitchers, Wooten said, will talk about the elevation's effects. They'll make the occasional joke.

In their conversations, they can maybe take solace in the unique preparation Colorado Springs offers. Sweet said if a player pitches here, his eventual transition to the majors can be easier. Once he leaves this elevation, he wouldn't have to make as many adjustments between home and away games.

Taylor Jungmann was 2-3 with a 6.37 ERA for Colorado Springs this season. Since moving up to Milwaukee, he's 3-1, and his ERA is less than three.

During Sunday's game, some Sky Sox staffers mentioned Jungmann's recent performance and joked the Brewers' organization would stop sending its best pitching prospects to Colorado Springs.

Or maybe it will continue to do so.

After all, Wooten said, "if you can pitch here, you can pitch anywhere."

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