Bailey trying to change his course

Published 10:17 am Monday, March 30, 2009

SARASOTA, Fla. — Homer Bailey sat in a corner of the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse on Sunday morning, his attention wrapped up in a book as his teammates munched on bowls of cereal at a nearby table.

It’s nothing unusual for Bailey. He reads a lot. He loves biographies. Loves history, especially when it deals with his native state of Texas. The 22-year-old pitcher likes to connect the dots and see parallels between the past and the present.

‘‘History does repeat itself,’’ he said.

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The former first-round draft pick is trying to change his own history this spring, setting his career on a different course. The way he’s gone about it has grabbed the attention of those familiar with his struggles to meet the unfairly high expectations heaped on him the moment he was drafted out of high school.

Bailey, it seems, is growing up before their eyes.

‘‘What we like is the fact that he’s shown probably more progress this time than he has over the past couple of years,’’ manager Dusty Baker said. ‘‘That’s what you need to see out of a young guy — progress and maturity. He’s getting it and he’s figuring it out.’’

Now, the Reds have to figure out what to do with him.

Bailey and right-hander Micah Owings are the last two candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation. Bailey has been very good (2.45 ERA), but Owings a little better (1.45 ERA). Plus, Owings can pinch-hit on the four days when he’s not pitching, giving Baker another option off the bench.

So, where does Bailey fit? Long reliever? Another trip to the minors to keep starting and improving?

‘‘It’s a little premature to ask us that yet,’’ Baker said Sunday. ‘‘Whatever it is, Homer’s in our plans big-time.’’

No one in the organization could have said that so emphatically at the end of last season. Bailey went 0-6 in eight starts with a 7.93 ERA. In a 5-1 loss to Colorado in July, he gave up 15 hits in only 4 2-3 innings.

Whatever he was doing wasn’t working.

‘‘The experience I went through last year, I learned a lot from it,’’ he said.

Asked what he learned, Bailey laughed and responded, ‘‘What not to do.’’

He returned home to La Grange, Texas, where he was a dominating high school pitcher, and tried to figure it out. By happenstance, he hooked up with University of Texas pitching coach Skip Johnson, who has the same temperament. They hit it off and started working out together.

‘‘Our personalities really fit,’’ Bailey said. ‘‘We went through a lot of the same things. You can have another person say something a different way — even though they’re saying the same thing as someone else — and it clicks.’’

A lot of things started to click. He began to grasp what other pitching coaches had tried to get across. Bailey refined his delivery, working to keep his weight back toward the rubber as he begins his windup. He began to understand some of the other things about the art of pitching.

‘‘It’s like learning a subject,’’ he said. ‘‘If at first you don’t understand it, you kind of push it away. Once you start understanding it piece by piece, you get more of a grasp of it.’’

When Bailey reported to camp, there was a noticeable difference. He’s more approachable, less reserved. He seems to be more confident in himself and more at peace with where he’s headed.

Baker noticed the change right away.

‘‘Just his overall demeanor, his delivery, and his outlook and mindset,’’ Baker said.

Since Cincinnati made him the seventh overall pick in the June 2004 draft, the Texas prep phenom has felt enormous expectations. He got a $2.3 million signing bonus, then dominated hitters during three minor league seasons. With the Reds in desperate need of pitching, fans clamored for his promotion. The Reds said he needed more time to work on things in the minors.

Finally, he was called up in 2007. The Reds sold 38,696 tickets for his debut on June 8, when he went five innings and got the win in a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians. He made nine starts that season, going 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA. He regressed last season, losing games and his confidence along the way. The same fans who had clamored for his promotion a year earlier were now urging the team to trade him.

Remember, he’s only 22 — the age of a typical college graduate.

By showing growth this spring, Bailey has forced the Reds to reevaluate how he fits into their short-term plans. He’s not sure what comes next.

‘‘Your guess is as good as mine,’’ Bailey said, chuckling. ‘‘I understand the path I’m on. No matter what happens, I’m going to keep making those strides and pushing forward.’’