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There was a lot riding on Rodney Medina’s at-bat in the top of the ninth inning July 4. The Medicine Hat batter was up in the count, three balls and no strikes.

Billings Mustangs starting pitcher Marlyn Tisdale, who had toiled for eight-plus innings, was on the verge of a complete-game shutout. He wasn’t going to give in to Medina, who had already singled three times off Tisdale.

Tisdale especially didn’t want to walk Medina. The Mustangs starter had yet to give up a base on balls, and he wasn’t about to start this late in the game. A 3-0 lead gets a lot less secure when you’re walking people.

So when Tisdale battled back and got Medina to loft an easy fly to left fielder Noochie Varner, he quietly pumped his right fist as the ball landed harmlessly in Varner’s glove. Moments later Tisdale closed out the game with his seventh strikeout, bringing the Mustangs’ largest crowd to its feet and giving the team its first complete game and shutout of the season.

Consider it another lesson in Successful Pitching 101.

“My thing is, throw a lot of strikes,” says Tisdale, who was named the Pioneer League’s pitcher of the week for his performance, the second Mustang to get the award already this year. “If guys are going to beat me, I want them to put the ball in play. And I have that confidence in my defense where I’ll let them work and make the outs for me. I’m not a strikeout pitcher, so I’m not going to strike out everybody.”

Tisdale may not strike out everybody, but he’s not walking many, either.

In fact, just about the entire Mustangs pitching staff is stingy when it comes to issuing free passes.

While the Mustangs staff ranks second in team ERA (3.61), one category where the Mustangs do even better is strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Billings pitching coach Ted Power considers a 2-to-1 ratio as good: Through Monday, the Mustangs were at 3.69-to-1, tops in the league.

Provo, which leads the league in ERA at 3.29, is second in strikeouts-to-walks ratio at 3.62, followed by Great Falls, which is third in ERA (3.62) and strikeouts-to-walks (3.16).

“From the very top, from Sammy Ellis who is the pitching coordinator for us, right on down through the system, what we try to preach to them is establish you’re number one, number two, pitch in the strike zone in the first couple of innings,” Power says. “Don’t try to get cute, pick the corners. Keep the ball low in the zone and you’re going to get your outs, especially if you pitch ahead in the count.”

 
  JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff
  Clint Collins has walked just two batters in his 21 innings while striking out 21, a ratio better than 10-to-1

Starter Clint Collins is tops among the Mustangs, having walked just two batters in his 21 innings while striking out 21, a ratio better than 10-to-1. Reliever Nate Cotton, who leads the league in saves with six, has just one walk to nine strikeouts in 10 innings. Reliever Steven Kelly (8-to-1) also has an excellent ratio.

“I’ve just been able to find my release point,” says Collins, who attributes his success to a switch from the bullpen to the starting rotation. “I feel like I can throw any pitch for a strike. I’m able to throw my curve ball, my split finger for a strike as well as a slider. Any time you can do that you’re going to be successful, whether it be in the major leagues or here in rookie ball. If a pitcher can keep a hitter guessing, then they’re going to be successful. Luckily, pretty much our whole pitching staff has been able to do that this year.”

It seems so obvious. No pitcher likes to walk any hitters. Just throw strikes. But accomplishing that is a different matter.

A variety of things can go wrong – mechanics, mental focus, preparation, lack of confidence in yourself or your defense – that can lead to a pitcher struggling to find the strike zone. But for the most part, the Mustangs haven’t fallen prey to many of those problems.

“What that means is they’re confident in their stuff and their ability to throw strikes, not be afraid of contact,” says Power, who is in his second season with the Mustangs. “That’s what I find a lot in guys this age, last year especially, they want to strike everybody out. They want them to swing and miss everything. These guys just say, ‘Here it is, hit it."’

Which is exactly Tisdale’s philosophy. And it’s worked. He’s 5-0 and leads the league with a 1.56 ERA after throwing another seven shutout innings – with no walks – Monday against Great Falls. He hasn’t allowed a run in 16 straight innings.

“When you’re out there pitching, the most important thing is to get the first strike over,” Tisdale says. “All the pitching coaches have been stressing strike one, strike two, then go to work. It’s always better to pitch ahead in the count than behind.

“My goal is to aim for no walks per game and hopefully come out with a W, every pitcher wants that. As long as I don’t walk anybody, I think my team has a real good chance to win.”

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