For Justus Sheffield to feel right on the pitching mound, he needs to jitterbug.
That is his style. That is where he finds the beat to excel like an ace pitcher.
Two starts into his Tacoma Rainiers career in Triple-A, Sheffield is doing more plodding than prancing. He admits he is out of whack, and struggled in his home debut Friday night in Tacoma’s 10-3 victory over Albuquerque.
Pitching in front of Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto, who drove down to Cheney Stadium to watch the organization’s top prospect pitch, Sheffield labored through four innings that required 82 pitches. He gave up two runs (one earned) on five hits., walked three batters and struck out two.
“The stuff is good, we know that,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said. “But, at the same time, a lot of pitches (from Sheffield) we need to get closer to the strike zone to have a chance to get swings and misses.”
It is a stark contrast to the kind of command Sheffield showed during spring training, albeit in limited work. He pitched four scoreless innings, giving up one hit and striking out six.
In his Triple-A season debut Sunday at Sacramento, Sheffield’s pitches were all over the place. He ended up surrendering four earned runs in four-plus innings, walking five batters and giving up a pair of home runs.
“Sometimes he just has so much energy, he gets out of rhythm,” Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter said. “He gets a little jumpy, and … goes side-to-side with his delivery versus being more aligned with (home) plate.”
Sheffield is a three-pitch pitcher — fastball (93-95 mph range), slider and changeup. On Friday, again he struggled to locate any of them. It was obvious he was fighting himself.
“I’m just rushing, honestly,” Sheffield said. “I need to take a one-second pause and stay back a little longer (on pitches). It would keep me more on line. Right now, my front side is opening up, and I am leaving the fastball up and away.”
Sheffield gave up two hard-hit singles in the first inning, both off his fastball, but got out of the jam unscathed.
His only clean inning came in the third when he got Craig Gentry to fly out to center field, and Sam Hilliard and Brendan Rodgers to ground out.
Sheffield got the first two outs of the fourth inning, but saw his string of retiring six consecutive hitters end when Brian Mundell laced a double in the right-center gap.
He walked Dom Nunez, then gave up back-to-back RBI singles to Elliot Soto and Metzler.
“I am the type of pitcher that pitches with rhythm,” Sheffield said. “I feel like I dance on the mound a little bit. Lately, I have been locking myself up.”
The Mariners see Sheffield as a major piece in their rebuilding effort. They traded former ace pitcher James Paxton to the New York Yankees to acquire him last November.
He has endured slow starts before, but this is a guy who holds a career 3.13 ERA in the minor leagues, displaying pinpoint control while striking out more than one batter per inning (508 strikeouts in 490 innings pitched before Friday).
He vows to fix things as quickly as possible.
“It is just a little bump,” Sheffield said. “I feel like I am headed in the right direction. I don’t want to press too much. I will get out there the next four days and get it under control — and get out there on the fifth day (for his next start) and get back to being myself.”