Bleich Heading In A Good Direction

Bleich struck out a career-high ten batters Friday

TRENTON, NJ - When a former first round pick undergoes surgery on a torn labrum in his pitching arm, it could signal the end of any real hope of making it to the big leagues. For Jeremy Bleich however, he is beginning to prove that the injury could just be a bump in the road.

After missing the entire 2011 season after surgery, Bleich returned to the minors in 2012, bouncing around three teams in the Yankees' system. In 2013, he returned to Trenton, where he spent much of 2009 and 2010, and began to regain his form out of the bullpen, appearing in 27 games with an ERA of 2.76.

At the start of the 2014 season, Thunder manager Tony Franklin inserted Bleich back into the starting rotation, where he has shown flashes of his first round talent.

"I'm pretty pleased with my performance so far," Bleich said. "Obviously, there are always areas I can improve on. I'm continuing to look for those things and adjusting to continue to get better. But overall, I think I've fared pretty well."

Franklin believes that Bleich, in a starting role, is right back where he has always belonged.

"When Jeremy first started his professional career, he was a starter," Franklin said. "He came [to Trenton] and was a starter. Unfortunately, as the case with many young pitchers, injuries set him back.

"But, his arm strength is back and he is throwing the heck out of the ball right now. In his last few starts he has gone seven innings, which is a sign of regaining strength."

Through ten starts, Bleich is 4-4 with a 3.47 ERA. He has struck out 49 batters and opponents have a .229 average when he is on the mound.

"It feels really good to be starting and going six or seven innings again," Bleich said. "I'm starting to feel more comfortable pitching more and later into games. I feel like I'm coming back into the role pretty well."

Bleich's pitching coach, Tommy Phelps, has preached the importance of keeping a routine as he transitions back to a starter after a full season in the bullpen.

"He' s getting used to the routine and the workload with being a starter," Phelps noted. "It took a few years coming back from that injury, especially with last year being his first full season back, but he was in the bullpen. So keeping his routine will be key for him this season."

To prepare for the starting role again, Bleich worked on his fastball in Spring Training, while also adding a new pitch to his arsenal, which he refers to as a "hybrid" between a slider and a cutter.

"I added a slider or cutter, which I'm still working on, but it is an added pitch this year. Meanwhile, my velocity in my fastball is coming back as the summer approaches and I feel like I'm headed in a good direction," Bleich said.

Franklin thinks that a hybrid pitch like that could become a valuable for Bleich, especially later in games when his fastball may lose some velocity.

"You've begun to see that slider or cutter out of Jeremy, which has been an added bonus and become a put-away pitch for him when he needs it," Franklin said.

Phelps sees the new pitch addition as having helped his other pitches, specifically the effectiveness of his curveball.

"With that pitch, it's about feel and release point," Phelps added. "He has been able to elevate it against righties and has been also effective against lefties. Last year, his curveball wasn't working as well against lefties, so I think adding this pitch has helped his curveball stay effective as well."

Both Franklin and Phelps believe that Bleich could return to top prospect form with some more work and continued success.

"It's always hard to say, but I'm always optimistic," Franklin said. "You can certainly make yourself a top prospect once again, but you have to put numbers up and Jeremy is certainly working his way towards that.

"When you start stringing some good starts together and you do it again and again, someone is going to take a look. Nothing goes unnoticed."

"He's older now," Phelps added, "so it's going to be something where he is always going to have to prove himself. But he has gone through a lot of adversity, both personally and professionally, so I think that gives him the grit that he has and I am excited for him."

As for his continued improvement, Bleich, who is coming off of a career-high ten strikeout performance in Friday night's game, targets command and pitch effectiveness but believes both will come with time on the mound.

"As we progress, I need to work on my fastball command and using my changeup more effectively, but those things will come as I get more comfortable with my mechanics and going later into games," Bleich concluded.

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