WEIGHT GAMES MCMACHEN SHEDS POUNDS, TUNES UP.
ADELANTO - It showed in his eyes. A shy, and perhaps even a bit insecure Cliff McMachen knew his standing within the JetHawks parent Arizona Diamondbacks organization took a dramatic turn for the worse after he showed up for spring training out of shape.
And pitching poorly when he got there didn't help.
As he sat hunched over on a golf cart during a spring training game at the Diamondbacks' Tucson, Ariz., minor-league complex, his body language told his whole story. McMachen, 22, knew he'd become expendable, and as a low-round draft pick with little money invested in him by the parent club, he was a phone call or a brief meeting with the farm director away from being sent home.
``I couldn't throw strikes, I couldn't get guys out, and I looked like a slob,'' McMachen said of his woeful spring training. ``I mean, I was 20 pounds heavier and I wasn't even sure if I was going to make it this year; if I was going to make it through the year.''
After having some success at the lower levels of the Diamondbacks system - including a brief stint with the JetHawks last season - McMachen was left behind when teams broke camp, relegated to suspect status on the Tucson, Ariz., extended spring training team.
But McMachen survived his gut check.
He started a grueling running program under the supervision of former JetHawks strength and conditioning coach Pat Panico that helped him shed most of the weight he'd put on in the offseason, and he's since emerged as one of the JetHawks' most consistent pitchers.
After struggling early in the season - he had a 16.88 ERA through his first three outings - the left-handed McMachen has become one of the many surprising JetHawks success stories this season.
McMachen, scheduled to start the JetHawks last regular season game against Stockton on Sunday, now is 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA.
And these days, McMachen's body language projects an entirely different vibe.
``It's kind of hard to ooze confidence when you're either in extended (spring training) or getting ready to go to extended, so from that standpoint, I think he realized that what he needed to do was be able to get people out, and slowly but surely that's exactly what he did,'' JetHawks manager Mike Aldrete said.
McMachen, who joined the team in early May, has been effective in several roles, most recently as a starter, since taking Scott Barber's turn in the rotation three weeks ago after Barber was promoted.
In his past three starts, McMachen is 1-1 with a 2.18 ERA over 20 2/3 innings, a span in which he's struck out 23 batters and allowed 14 hits and five walks.
``He hasn't been preoccupied with whether he was the closer or whether he's the late-inning lefty or whether he's the mop-up guy,'' Aldrete said. ``The bottom line (for McMachen) is when you put me in the game I'm going to do some things that make the manager want to put me back out there, and that's what he's done.''
In addition to the weight loss, McMachen credits the success he's had at Lancaster to several mechanical adjustments he's worked on with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., including a new release point on his changeup that, though still needs work, is effective enough to prevent hitters from sitting on his fastball and curveball, his two favorite pitches.
A Las Vegas-area union painter during the offseason, McMachen has been involved in major projects at several prominent casinos including the Bellagio.
``It's manual labor, but I guess the hardest part is learning the finesse and the technique of it, learning how to roll it right and learning how to cut in the edges right so you don't put too much paint on so you don't get the runs and all that crap,'' McMachen said.
McMachen said his offseason gig is a compelling incentive to someday make it to the big leagues, where he expects to have a lot more fun and make a lot more money. But putting the finishing touches on a high-profile casino, and dropping in a 3-2 offspeed pitch aren't completely unrelated skills, he said.
``It's very similar, indeed,'' he said. ``A 3-2 changeup is a gutsy pitch you've got to have confidence in and the only way to build confidence is through doing it.
``It's the same thing with painting. My first day out painting I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I just thought you kind of throw the paint on there and let it dry. I was scared, I didn't want to mess it up, but as I learned over the course of the offseason, it's not that hard once you get used to how the paint reacts, the properties of it and the thickness of it and all that. It's hard work, but it's fun.''
Gideon Rubin, (818)713-3607
(color) CLIFF McMACHEN
JetHawks pitcher turned his season around once he lost 20 pounds and made throwing changes.