BRADENTON, Fla. — When Clint Hurdle became Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had only seen from a far, heard, and watched Evan Meek’s solid 2010 season. The Evan Meek that Hurdle saw in person during the 2011 season was nothing like the All-Star prior.
The reliever he once was during 2010 hit 95-97 with his fastball regularly on the gun, while posting a 2.14 ERA over a career-high 70 appearances (80.0 innings). During the 2011 season, Meek battled right shoulder tendonitis for most of the year, appearing in just 24 games with Pittsburgh.
“Hurdle was with Texas [as the team's hitting coach] in 2010,” Meek said. “He knows that year, but he’s never seen it for himself. It was really disappointing for me to come into last year with high expectations of myself, to go out there last year, and do what I did. I feel like I’m ahead now then I was last year.”
The Pirates selected Meek in 2007 off the Tampa Bay Ray’s Rule 5 draft. That season Meek posted a 4.30 ERA over 67.0 innings with Double-A Montgomery. But General Manager Neal Huntington saw something in the right-hander.
“Huntington knows what I can do,” Meek said. “He was the one that grabbed me. He’s got faith in me. He knows me very well. He knows me better than a lot of people, in terms of pitching and what I need to do to prepare and get ready. And so does [pitching coach] Ray [Searage]. I’ve had Ray for a while, and Clint knows too. It’s been fun getting back on board, but there’s still some work to do. Even over the course of a season, there’s always work to be done. You’re always getting better. They couldn’t have done a better job of getting me confident, prepared, for the next six months.”
After getting off to a rough start during Grapefruit League action this spring, Meek has been solid on the mound. Over his last six outings (8.0 innings), Meek has allowed one earned run on three hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
“We are pleased with the development,” Hurdle said. “We’re pleased with the progress. And plus, he’s carried one of the heavier work loads of anybody out of the bullpen this spring…It’s another step forward. The velocity and the movement were there [Wednesday]. I continue to be encouraged of the progress that he’s been making.”
In two of those six outings, Meek has tossed multiple frames in order to build up his arm strength this spring. The idea was intentional and a plan that was put into place by pitching coach Ray Searage.
“It’s absolutely intentional,” Hurdle said. “He needed to pitch. From where he was last year, he felt healthy enough to do it. It was another way to develop arm speed, velocity. His velocity has improved. He can carry a little bit of a workload, stretch out a little bit. It’s been a plan that Ray’s had in place. Evan has been more than willing to work with it, and to do whatever he can to get himself back to the version that he was in 2010. It’s way better than anything we’ve saw last year already.
“The first step was to make sure that I could do it,” Meek said of the plan this spring. “They wanted to see that I was healthy, that I could take on that kind of load. I’m really pleased with how I’ve been able to bounce back. I’ve felt great this spring. I think really what they’re trying to do is get me reps, just try to get me innings, just run me back out there, and back out there. As a reliever, if you throw and you sit for a while, you kind of get a little out of whack. They know me, and they know that I need to get out there and get those innings and feel what I’m doing. I need to feel what I’m doing wrong. I need to feel what I’m doing right. Then I need to make the adjustments as we go. They’ve done a phenomenal job preparing me.”
“I feel really good. Ray has done an awesome job of getting me innings and throwing me multiple innings when I go out there…Throwing those multiple innings each time, I get more consistent, more confident. My stuff is starting to come out. The last few outings, I’ve felt really good. It’s just going to keep going up.”
Throughout spring, Meek has been anywhere from 90-94 with his fastball. Although it is still a few ticks below what he fired back in 2010, Hurdle still sees progress from Meek. And he also believes there’s no reason why he won’t gain it back.
“There’s times where it’s way better than it was last year,” Hurdle said. “The biggest thing isn’t so much the velocity, but the finish on his pitches. You saw him throw some breaking balls [Wednesday], some guys took funny swings. Real funny swings…I also think we’re also starting to see a guy whose mound presence has improved. There’s a lot more confidence out there now.”
Meek worked hard over the offseason to get his body in better shape, dropping nearly 20 pounds by cycling, and building up arm strength, in order to bounce back from his injury plagued 2011 season.
With just two games remaining until Grapefruit League action ends, the team will travel to Philadelphia for a two-game exhibition set. Opening Day kicks off on April 5 at PNC Park. Once the season starts, Meek realizes he won’t be on the schedule like he has been in spring. No longer will there be lists on the board with when the relievers will be pitching. Once the phone rings in the ‘pen, it’s go-time, and he’s ready for that to happen.
“Once the season starts, it’s not like I can look on a board and see I’m pitching today, or I’m pitching tomorrow,” Meek said. “But I know how to prepare for that. I know in my head now that I can go multiple innings. I can go one inning, I can do these things now. I know that I’m healthy. All that’s in the past, and I can go out there and focus on what I do best. And continue to get better. They’ve done a great job of jump starting that for me this spring.”
Meek’s versatility is huge for the Pirates bullpen. He is able to pitch multiple innings, high-leverage, and has experience pitching in the 8th and 9th innings like he did back in 2010.
“Not just me, but versatility is important in a bullpen. In any bullpen,” Meek said. “We have multiple guys down there that can do that. Even Joel [Hanrahan] can throw two innings. I mean, we don’t want that to happen. Everyone down there is versatile, that’s why they’re valuable. Whether skip brings me in for one hitter, two hitters, a clean inning, multiple innings, it really doesn’t matter. You’re down there and you got a job. When the phone rings, just get your mind right and get ready.”
The success that Meek has been having this spring has gave him more confidence on the mound as well.
“The less things you think about, the more confident you are,” Meek said. “The more you can focus on that hitter, getting that hitter out. Spring Training, that’s what that’s for. It’s for trying new things. It’s for working on your pitches, all those things. But once the season starts, once your under the lights, all that goes away. So you got to make sure you take it upon yourself personally to be prepared and accountable and be ready.”
Since his first inning in relief this spring, where he allowed three runs on three hits with two walks against the Toronto Blue Jays, and having been pulled by Hurdle before finishing an inning in relief (0.2 IP), Meek has came a long way. So much in fact that he said it was “night and day different” to how he feels on the mound now.
“Just going through things with Ray and working on mechanics, some video from what I did in 2010 because that’s what we’re trying to compare a lot of videos to,” Meek said. “Talking with [Special Assistant to the GM Jim] Benedict a lot this spring. They’ve been great. Just try this, don’t do this, and I’ve been able to really start to put it all back together. Once the season starts, that’s all out the window. It’s time to compete and that’s what I’m waiting and excited for.”