Olivero masters mental game on mound
HILLSBORO — It's not hard to see when things are going well for pitchers. Every pitch seems to hit its spot or draw a bad swing. When batters do make contact, it's usually weak.
There is also very little time between pitches as the pitcher confidently controls the game at his tempo.
It's much harder to notice when a pitcher struggles or battles through a start. Just because he is getting outs, it doesn't mean the outing is easy.
What makes a good pitcher great is the determination to grind when things don't go your way.
"That's the beauty of the game," Hillsboro Hops manager Javier Colina said. "Sometimes when you don't have your best stuff, you can still compete."
Hillsboro starting pitcher Deyni Olivero recently had his test at a crucial moment.
The Hops were kicking off a three-game series with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 14. The Volcanoes were in first place of the Single-A Northwest League South Division, leading the Hops by one game.
A Hillsboro win would create a tie at the top of the division with just eight games remaining in the first half. A loss would lengthen the division deficit to two games.
After a Saturday loss in Boise that ended at 9:51 p.m., the Hops drove through the night, making it home at 6 a.m. Sunday. Although these types of journeys are common in minor-league baseball, this one could not have come at a more inopportune time.
The Hops did have one thing in their favor: Olivero (then 1.01 ERA) was scheduled to start.
"I can depend on him to go five-plus every time," Hillsboro pitching coach Barry Enright said. "He's become a leader. I'm extremely proud of him. The mental side of his game is very strong for a young kid."
Success has been easy to come by in 2019 for the 21-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
After a decent 2018 season (3.94 ERA in 14 starts with the Missoula Ospreys of the Rookie League), Olivero went to work with his cousin, former MLB pitcher Rubby De La Rosa.
De La Rosa, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox, helped Olivero gain more control of his sinker.
Olivero's pitching isn't the only thing that's excelled this season. His leadership, demeanor and psyche have all drawn praise from both Enright and Colina.
"I worked my butt off in the offseason so I could do this," Olivero said via translator.
After having trouble locating his slider, curveball and changeup against Salem-Keizer, Olivero was left with just his sinker, a 94 mph pinpoint missile, to navigate through the top offense in the league.
"I try to stay positive all the time, whether the situation is bad or good," Olivero said. "Not every day is the same. Sometimes there are going to be days you don't get the results you want, but I stay positive."
Rather than roll over and allow the bullpen to take control, the sleep-lacking Olivero grinded for 5.2 innings. The 7-3 victory earned Olivero his fourth win of the season and moved the Hops into a first-place tie.
"It was very important to be mentally prepared so I could go out there and perform the way I know I'm capable of," Olivero said.
Olivero allowed a first-inning home run to the NWL's leading slugger, Franklin Labour. But the 6-1, 200-pound right-hander surrendered only one more run over his final 4.2 innings.
He threw 53 of his 78 pitches for strikes. Rather than go for big strikeouts, he pitched to contact, letting the hitter and his defense do the work for him.
"When I took him out of the game, I told him, 'You did an unbelievable job. I love what I see. I loved the tempo and rhythm of the game. You attacked hitters and looked like a real horse. I'm proud of you,'" Colina said. "He showed that Sunday with his love, passion and mound presence. He was unbelievable."
With the need for the Diamondbacks' college arms to get early-inning action, Olivero and a couple other Hillsboro starters (Marcos Tineo, Wilfry Cruz and Michel Gelabert) asuumed "piggyback" roles, pitching extended innings in relief.
Some minor league teams split the game into halves One pitcher gains experience in the early innings while the other learns how to pitch later in games.
Olivero's first piggyback appearance did not go to plan. On July 19, he allowed four earned runs in four innings against Eugene.
Rather than wallow, Olivero made an adjustment to his approach and searched for weaknesses in batters' swings.
The changes worked, as he returned to his dominant self, with scoreless outings on July 24 and July 29.
The July 29 outing was his best performance of the season. He struck out seven and allowed one hit over the final five innings of a 3-0 win over Everett.
"It's been pretty impressive the way that he's kept his mentality coming out of the bullpen," Hillsboro coach Chuy Mendoza said. "He's like a bulldog out there. I's one of those things you look for in players."
The Hops are battling South Division rivals Salem-Keizer, the Eugene Emeralds and the Boise Hawks for the second-half title (Salem-Keizer edged Hillsboro by two games in the first half).
Hillsboro is at home against the Everett AquaSox for games at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 1 p.m. Thursday, then will play host to Salem-Keizer at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, also at Ron Tonkin Field. Then comes the NWL All-Star break.
Through Monday, July 29, Olivero was 6-1 with a league-low 1.80 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 45 innings. He has only allowed runs in three of his six starts, and his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is an incredible 1.02.
He ranks first in the league in wins and ERA, and his WHIP is second-best in the league.
"He shows no fear," Enright said. "He goes right out there and throws sinkers, saying, 'Here it comes. Hit it.' That's what you want from a pitcher."
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