Casey Lawrence goes from almost done to almost a major leaguer

Friday marks the 2017 spring training debut for Devon Travis, who's struggled to stay healthy, but very anxious to get back out there and join the guys in game action.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Casey Lawrence was never supposed to be a pro ballplayer. A crafty shooter who liked to run the floor, Lawrence went to tiny Albright College to play basketball. He wanted to go to the NBA.

The problem is exactly zero NBA players have ever come out of Albright College. It just didn’t seem realistic. So, Lawrence walked on to Albright’s baseball team as a pitcher, started putting up some good numbers, and by his junior year he’d hung up his basketball sneakers for good.

Lawrence was raw, but he tried to get as much experience as he could. He had a knack for carving up a strike zone, and as he played summer ball in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, scouts began sniffing around. They gave him questionnaires to complete. Although he was still too inexperienced of a pitcher to be drafted his junior year, some scouts told him there was a chance he’d go in the late rounds as a senior.

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Well, that didn’t happen. So, with a marketing degree in hand, and his pro sports dreams behind him, Lawrence started scouring job boards and building his resume. He took a quick graduation trip to Florida, returning home to Pennsylvania on a Sunday and pitching in a men’s league game that night. Monday morning was going to be the beginning of trying to make it in the real world. And that’s when Bobby Gandolfo, a Blue Jays amateur scout at the time, gave him a call.

Back on a plane and back to Florida Lawrence went. He signed a contract for whatever the Blue Jays were willing to give him. And here he is, seven years later, attending his first big-league camp and knocking on the door of an MLB call-up.

“He’s really got our attention,” says Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “The guys in the organization raved about him last year.”

The Blue Jays are certainly taking a close look at him this spring. He’s thrown 11.1 innings, the third most of any pitcher in camp. He was roughed up in a hard-luck outing earlier this week, but in his five prior he’d allowed just six hits and one run over nine innings.

What makes Lawrence tough for a hitter is his downward action, which has gotten him 17 ground-ball outs in those 11.1 innings this spring. He throws mostly a two-seamer, which sits between 92 and 94 m.p.h., while using an 82-84-m.p.h. change-up as his favourite secondary weapon. Then there’s an 84-m.p.h. slider he can throw to both sides of the plate, and a get-me-over curveball he’s been working on that’s coming along nicely.

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“I try to think any pitch, any count,” Lawrence says. “I figure out what’s working in the bullpen before the game and go from there.”

Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road. Lawrence began 2016 at triple-A but was demoted a level after allowing 20 hits and 13 earned runs across three short outings. At double-A, he was reunited with Vince Horsman, a veteran pitching coach he had worked with earlier in his career at single-A Lansing.

His old mentor had some ideas. Lawrence had traditionally pitched with a slow, methodical wind-up, and Horsman felt he could benefit from an injection of urgency. Horsman prepared a series of videos featuring pitchers with similar deliveries to Lawrence but faster cadences. While watching old footage of Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, an adjustment presented itself.

The key was changing the first step of his delivery. Lawrence had always taken that step towards the first base side, but after watching Martinez utilize a big first step back towards second, Lawrence figured he’d give it a try.

Keeping his balance throughout the delivery was tricky at first, but as he continued to learn the motion, Lawrence found it helped him drive towards the plate with more explosiveness. And the radar gun was impossible to ignore. Lawrence’s fastball was suddenly coming out of his hand at 92-94 m.p.h., after sitting around 88-89 for most of his career.

But it hasn’t always been easy. One of the first times Lawrence tried the new delivery was in a double-A start against the Altoona Curve. He allowed five runs on nine hits. It was his third poor outing in a row, and his fourth in his last five. After the game, Lawrence seriously considered whether he was done with baseball. He thought about how he still had that marketing degree and half a resume.

“I was really down—it was bad,” Lawrence says. “It was the darkest spot of my career. I’m 28, I’m in double-A, I’m struggling. I thought, maybe it’s the end.”

At the ballpark the next day, Horsman sensed Lawrence’s despair. He sat him down for a heart-to-heart.

“He goes, ‘Hey, listen, just buy into it. Give it your all. Let’s see what happens. You’ve got to believe,’” Lawrence says. “It helped a lot. I sort of dialled back in. I was like, ‘you know what? What do I have to lose? I’ve made it this far. I have a degree to fall back on. I’ll be all right.’ Having a pitching coach like that in your corner, it meant a lot.”

Following the Altoona outing, Lawrence allowed just two earned runs over his next three starts, striking out 20 in 19 innings. Suddenly, the new delivery was working, and the extra velocity was making his secondary pitches better. Those three performances earned him a promotion back up to triple-A, where he finished the season putting up a 2.91 ERA over 12 starts.

“It just clicked—it’s crazy how things happen,” Lawrence says. “It just shows how the game can turn for anybody.”

Gibbons has made it clear how high the organization is on Lawrence, and has hinted strongly that he expects him to play a role for the Blue Jays this year. It’s unlikely that will happen out of camp, with Lawrence all but certainly destined to begin the season as a starter for Buffalo. But if a Blue Jays pitcher goes down, or a strapped bullpen needs reinforcements, he’ll be among the shortlist of arms the team considers for a call-up.

“I’ll pitch wherever they want me to. Start, bullpen, whatever,” Lawrence says. “I’m just grateful to have a job and get to keep playing. It’s what I want to do. How you’re used, you can’t control that. All I can do is just go out there and pitch.”

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