Modesto, California —— After two tough years as a starting pitcher, something had to change for Zech Lemond.
The right-hander has always had the stuff—a very hard fastball, a hard breaking ball, and a sturdy frame—but those things never came together like you’d expect after the San Diego Padres made him their third round pick out of Rice University in 2014.
Between 2015 and 2016—both seasons spent with the Lake Elsinore Storm of the California League—Lemond was far too hittable in a rotation role: an 11-16 record and a 6.03 ERA in 51 games (35 starts) pace those two seasons, with 281 hits allowed in 206 innings pitched.
Sure, the California League favors hitters, but there’s no question Lemond had more to show than those two underwhelming summers. Now, he’s back in Lake Elsinore once again, hoping the third time is the charm. Only this time he’s back at home in the bullpen, and he’s having a renaissance as his hard stuff and max-effort attitude play up in short relief stints.
“I tried to make the adjustment into a starter and it didn’t really work out for me, I could never really get that big adrenaline rush,” Lemond told Baseball Census on Friday evening ahead of Lake Elsinore’s road game against the Modesto Nuts. “But now that I’m down in the bullpen again it’s like, as soon as I get that call, boom. My heart starts racing. I feel like I’m back at home.”
If the season’s first month is any indication, Zech Lemond may have just found himself a permanent home down in the ‘pen. It may soon push him out of his three-year home in Lake Elsinore, too, and finally up the San Diego Padres’ minor league ladder to Double-A if he keeps pitching like this.
Across his first seven appearances (14.1 innings) in 2017, Lemond has whiffed 22 batters and walked just two. He’s proving to be tougher to hit out of the bullpen, too, with a .279 opponents’ batting average; compare that to 2016 (.324) and 2015 (.326) and progress is coming. Fourteen innings is a small sample size, of course, but early returns have Lemond coming to the ballpark every day with a new outlook.
“It’s a comfort to be in this role, and to be able to go one day at a time rather than thinking of so much extra stuff as a starter,” he said. “Now I go out there and it’s just, boom, let the catcher put a sign down and that’s the only thing I’m concentrating on. Being in the moment, having the ability to compete every day is just so much more exciting for me.”
You have to be something of an adrenaline junkie to come out of the ‘pen. Your entire job is predicated on sitting around for three hours before rapidly warming up and running in for what’s often the most important few batters of the game. Maybe that’s the fit for Lemond, who relishes the elevated heart rate and high-pressure tight rope of the late innings. It’s certainly the best fit for his hard, hard stuff; put simply, there’s not much nuance in how he approaches hitters.
“I just throw the ball as hard as I can and hope for the best, really,” he said, laughing. “I just pray to God that they miss the ball. But the Lord blessed me with a strong arm, so I’m just going to keep working on that, keep focusing on throwing every pitch as hard as I can.”
He paused, and smirked — the look of a guy with a secret.
“I’m actually trying to bring a third pitch now, I’m trying to add a splitter,” he added. “I just started playing around with it today. I just started throwing it hard. I spent all day yesterday working with my grips and my fingers on it in the bullpen.”
Wait — what? The big, overhand flame-throwing righty who’s already whiffing 13.8 batters per nine wants more hard, late-moving stuff?
“You get a hitter 1-2, and throw it like a fastball, he’ll swing at it like it’s a fastball, and then it disappears,” he said, smiling again with the look of a guy who can’t wait to bring out his brand new pitch. “You remember that Backyard Baseball freeze ball pitch? Yeah. I want one of those.”
It may never be a video-game quality pitch, but the thought of adding a splitter to his repertoire is intimidating, to say the least. And if it ever comes to fruition, Lemond will have a bullpen catcher to thank.
Before the season opener last month, the San Diego Padres came up to Lake Elsinore for an exhibition game, and Lemond ended up throwing for the big league club that day. In the bullpen while warming up, something clicked in the Padres’ bullpen catcher upon seeing him for the first time.
“I had been warming up with their catcher in the bullpen, and after I went in to pitch, [Lake Elsinore reliever] Colby Blueberg told me later, like, ‘dude, they were talking about you after you left, and they were saying how if you brought a splitter in, you could be nasty,’” Lemond revealed. “That’s when I started thinking about it. As an over-the-top guy, if I can come straight down hill with a splitter, that could be a next-level pitch.”
He may never get stuff good enough for Backyard Baseball, but as far as professional baseball is concerned, it looks like Zech Lemond has finally found where he’s meant to be.
One thing is certain, at least: this brand new splitter will fit right in with everything else he throws.
“I’ll just take that splitter, grip it, and throw it really hard, just like my fastball, and just like my slider,” Lemond said, still smiling and clearly excited to keep working on his new project. “Grip it and rip it, and see how it goes.”
In this Zech Lemond / San Diego Padres feature: