Pope Not Throwing Scared

Pope has a renewed confidence on the mound

Justin Pope had no problem making the transition from starter to reliever last season with the Trenton Thunder. After Pope struggled with AAA-Columbus to start this season, Pope is back with the Thunder and back to dominating out of the bullpen.

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He is 1-0 with six saves and a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings with the Thunder this season and knows that to continue successfully, he must trust his stuff and throw his game.

"I have to rely on throwing strikes, keeping the ball down low and changing speeds," said Pope, who went 0-1 with a 7.30 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched while at Columbus. "I put way too much pressure on myself and was trying to be someone I wasn't. I was trying to do too much."

Pope doesn't have overpowering stuff so when he begins to overthrow or try to be too fine, he gets in trouble. Thunder manager Bill Masse is confident that Pope is back to pitching like he was last year where Pope posted a 6-4 record with 29 saves and a 2.81 ERA.

"To his credit, he is back to where he was last year here," Masse said. "When you go up to AAA, you have to throw like you are here in AA and not throw scared."

Thunder pitching coach Dave Eiland agreed that "he [Pope] didn't trust his stuff. He was maybe trying to avoid too much contact where here, he attacks hitters with all three of his pitches."

Pope's best pitch his is changeup that he can not only strike batters out with, but uses to get groundballs. Pope's changeup is especially effective to left-handers, who batted .230 against him last year where right-handed batters hit .236. With Pope's ability to get batters out and his high competitive spirit, the coaching staff nor players seem worried when Pope enters the game.

"I have the utmost confidence in him when he comes in the game," Eiland said. "I am very comfortable with it. He is a true gamer."

One Pope's most recent appearances came in Saturday night's game against the Binghamton Mets. Pope entered in the top of the 8th inning to face the B-Mets' leadoff hitter Jonathan Slack with runners on first and second and two outs, and with the Thunder clinging to a 5-3 lead. Pope struck out Slack swinging and after a run in the bottom of the 8th on an Omir Santos home run, Pope pitched an almost perfect ninth. He gave up a leadoff walk, but then got a fly out and back-to-back strikeouts to pick up the save for Phil Hughes.

"I have to stay aggressive and not give in to any batter no matter who is hitting," Pope said. "I am just trying to control what I can on the field and go out there and throw strikes."

Pope seems to have worked past his early season struggles at AAA-Columbus, but it won't be the last time he takes that trip.

"He'll get a chance again. You can only learn from experience and you can only get better from it. Next time he takes that trip, he'll have that experience with him and do a lot better," Masse said.

He added, "He is one of those guys who is going to have to prove himself at every level."

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