Sounds pitcher counts on experience in Japan to help him get to Major Leagues

Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 10:32pm

Forget a pitch count. Frankie De La Cruz just let it fly.

The right-hander didn’t worry about his arm. In Japan, he really couldn’t.

If he focused too much on the number of pitches he tossed, he would get left behind.

“You can learn how to pitch there,” he said. “I threw 197 pitches one time in the bullpen. You have to throw at least 50 pitches every day in Japan. I think my arm gets ready, a better angle with the ball. I like it because the more baseballs you throw, the more you learn.”

After one season — and 1,000 pitches, at least — of minor league ball in Tokyo, De La Cruz has settled into the Nashville Sounds’ starting rotation.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions — he is just 2-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 14 starts. But the signs of improvement are there for the ninth-year veteran from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

In the second game of a doubleheader against Omaha on Wednesday night, De La Cruz pitched 6.1 innings of the Sounds’ seven-inning 5-4 victory. He allowed four runs (two earned), on seven hits with just one walk and two strikeouts.

It was a big win for the Sounds (32-41), who picked up just their second victory in 10 tries against Omaha this season.

They wrap up their five-game series with the Storm Chasers at 7:05 p.m. Friday. They welcome in New Orleans on Saturday for a four-game series that runs through Tuesday.

De La Cruz didn’t allow a run until the fifth inning as he extended a personal scoreless streak to 11 innings. He threw seven innings of shutout ball in a no-decision against Memphis last week.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, he had received just 29 runs of support from his teammates. But 13 of those came in one outing, thus he received only 16 runs of support (1.33 per game) in his 12 other starts.

Yet, De La Cruz doesn’t blame his teammates for his-below-average record.

“I was really struggling in the beginning with my head because I was thinking too much,” De La Cruz said. “Now I am trying to let it go and try to focus on my game and pitch. You learn day-by-day. What I am trying to do now is get people out.”

De La Cruz began his career in 2001 at the age of 17 when he signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Detroit Tigers. He spent the next six seasons floating around the minor leagues, jumping into a starting role in 2005.

He made his Major League debut in 2007, pitching in six games — all in relief — for the Tigers. But a 6.75 ERA resulted in being sent back down to the minors.

Later that offseason, he was one of five players traded to the Florida Marlins in exchange for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. De La Cruz pitched well in Triple-A Albuquerque, with a 13-8 record and a 4.34 ERA. But he again sputtered in a shot in the big leagues, giving up 18 earned runs in nine innings pitched for the Marlins.

He was traded to the Padres and actually began the 2009 season on the opening day roster. But he lasted just three games and 3.1 innings pitched, giving up just two earned runs and two hits while walking six. He was sent down to Triple-A Portland, spent the rest of the season there and all but four of his 48 appearances came out of the bullpen.

“I was there for no reason,” De La Cruz said. “So when they sent me to minor leagues, I called my agent and said, ‘Look, man, I want to go to someone else. Oh, let’s go to Japan.’”

De La Cruz sputtered in his first nine games with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, so he was demoted to their minor league affiliate. He got into a groove there, striking out 42 batters and walking 21 in 53.2 innings in 39 relief appearances. His ERA was the lowest of his career — 2.52 — and it caught the attention of the Milwaukee Brewers, who signed him in January.

“I learned a lot about baseball in Japan,” De La Cruz said. “I think I got the best angle with my arm right now ... and I also have my velocity back.”

The 5-foot-10, 213-pound De La Cruz throws his fastball in the 95 to 97 miles per hour range and mixes in a changeup and slider. But control has been issue. In his first 12 starts of the year, he walked 37 batters for more than three a game. In his last two starts, he has just two walks.

“With his kind of stuff, he shouldn’t be 2-4. He’s got better stuff than that,” Sounds manager Don Money said. “Earlier in the year, he was throwing five, six walks a game. Usually that eats up your pitch count kind of quick. ... Hopefully he is on track. His last two outings have been very good.”

If De La Cruz can string together some consistent starts, maybe he’ll get his fourth crack at the big leagues with his fourth different team. But the 27-year-old is not obsessing and trying to do too much.

He is just letting the ball fly, hopeful he’ll land back in the Majors eventually.

“I like to be here. I’d like to be in big leagues better but I like to be here because this is a job,” De La Cruz said. “I see a lot of players without a job because they don’t want to play minor league. This is a job so I really like it here. If something happens, then it happens. But right now, in my head, I pitch here first and see what’s going on.”