McCoy: Reds pitching coach looking for answers for struggling Castillo, Garrett

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Luis Castillo, left, and catcher Tyler Stephenson, right, listen to pitching coach Derek Johnson during the second inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Saturday, May 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Luis Castillo, left, and catcher Tyler Stephenson, right, listen to pitching coach Derek Johnson during the second inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Saturday, May 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

Derek Johnson feels it when Luis Castillo issues back-to-back hits and he feels it when Amir Garrett gives up cumulus-scraping home runs.

He feels their pain.

As the Cincinnati Reds pitching coach, he doesn’t throw a single pitch but he feels as if he is on the mound with them absorbing the anguish of their struggles.

He will be watching intently Friday, fingers on both hands crossed when Castillo faces the St. Louis Cardinals in Busch Stadium III. And he’ll be just as engrossed if Garrett and his wayward slider comes out of the bullpen.

“The first place I think of is that I wear it right along with them,” said Johnson. “There is a responsibility you have on influence on things or not. You feel that it is part of your job to do that.

“Every time they go out and struggle, I’m wearing it with them,” he added. “You are looking for answers, looking for solutions.”

Johnson said there is a fine line he doesn’t want to cross in straightening out wayward pitchers.

“The worst thing you can do is try to do too much,” he said. “You don’t want to go in too many directions or change directions on them.

“You walk this tricky tightrope of giving them the information you think they need and can use. And then at the same time not putting them in a situation where it becomes confusing, because it’s already confusing enough.

“Really, at the end of the day it is trying to simplify whatever it is that is the most important thing at that moment,” he added.

Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Amir Garrett leaves the field as Chicago Cubs fans cheer during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Saturday, May 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Amir Garrett leaves the field as Chicago Cubs fans cheer during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Saturday, May 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

Three starts ago, Castillo struck out 11 batters and it looked, to the untrained eye, that he was untracked. But his next two starts seemed more of the same ineffectiveness.

Johnson didn’t see it that way.

“In his last start he didn’t pump 11 guys out against the Cubs,” he said. “But I also thought he threw the ball pretty well. He got into the sixth inning had a hiccup in the sixth. I can’t say that should have ruined his outing. It is something you have to build on. Was it perfect? No. Was it great? No.”

And Johnson spotted flaws in the 11-strikeout game.

“Even in that game there were a couple of things that happened inside of that game that probably went unnoticed because he struck out 11,” said Johnson. “People thought, ‘Oh, he’s back.’ But if you dig deep, really look at it, how much better did he pitch that night than maybe what he has the last couple of times out. It’s relative.”

When things go bottoms up for guys like Castillo and Garrett, there is more to it than physical flaw. It can get mental, too. And they can fall into a trap of listening to too much outside advice.

“Some guys just need to be left alone,” said Johnson. “The reality of it is, it is their career, not mine. They’re professionals and they want to stay professionals.

“When you are struggling sometimes there is too much information,” he added. “You get it from friends, from people who care about you, people who have played the game and are reaching out to you. And then you have the people internally trying to help.

“You have some different people giving you different things,” he said. “What I have to careful with is that the messaging has to be consistent. I can’t go all over the place and say it is this and next week say that it is this and the next week it is that. That’s when you do the most damage.”

“We all have to remember that these guys are kids, young men. They are grown men, but they are young men,” said Johnson. “Sometimes we forget what it’s like to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You get stuck.

“And I feel for what they are going through, I feel for them going home and thinking about it, not sleeping the way they should, coming back to the ballpark the next day, trying to figure out solutions. That’s tough. It stinks. So it is really trying to be supportive, trying to understand they are going through a rough period and trying to figure out ways to get out of it. I’m hopeful. That’s my job.”

And how about the mental stability of struggling pitchers?

“The psychology is way more important than the physical aspect,” said Johnson. “We all have flaws when we throw a baseball or when we hit one. When you are not playing well, those flaws and holes are exposed even more. As you start to go down that road of struggles, it manifests itself into something physical. Even if they’ve had that flaw forever, it just becomes more apparent when a player struggles.”

While he tries to flick away his problems, Castillo is all-in on Johnson.

“He has always been the same person with me since I first met him,” said Castillo. “He hasn’t changed. He always wants to help us in any way he can. I’m just glad he’s always the same person with me.”

Castillo says he has the support he needs through these troubled times.

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