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Musser with rough outing, but encouraged after loss

July 1, 2012 - Mitch Rupert

Jon Musser stood in front of his locker in the Williamsport Crosscutters' clubhouse surprisingly upbeat Sunday night. He was joking with Larry Greene as he got dressed following the Cutters' 9-1 loss to Mahoning Valley.

This season has been a struggle for the right-handed pitcher, and Sunday was no different with Musser walking five and surrendering four hits in his two-plus innings of work. But still he stood in front of his locker, the Cutters having suffered their third loss in four games, not searching for answers but feeling he's only getting closer to being the pitcher he knows he can be.

"A lot of it is knowing you have the ability to do it. I proved to myself all through extended spring training that I have the ability to compete and do well here," Musser said after falling to 0-3 in his three starts. "That's all part of it, staying positive and know you can do it even when you go out there and struggle."

Musser has struggled to find a rhythm in his pitching ever since he strained an oblique muscle in extended spring training about a month before the New York-Penn League season started. He made just one start in extended spring following the injury and before he came north with the Cutters, and that outing was just two innings.

He was on a tight pitch count when he came north with Williamsport, which led to him throwing just two innings in his first start. But even as his pitch count has increased to around 75, he's struggled. He has yet to record an out in the third inning of any game he's started and has thrown just 5 1/3 total innings in his three starts.

Sunday he had a great first inning inducing a pair of routine fly balls and having the first of his five walks erased when catcher Logan Moore threw out Tyler Naquin, the Cleveland Indians' first-round pick this year, trying to steal second base. It was an encouraging sign for manager Andy Tracy and pitching coach Aaron Fultz.

It was the first time this year Musser had an inning where he faced just three batters. But in the second inning, Musser appeared to lose his rhythm. He walked Charlie Valerio on a 3-2 pitch to lead off the inning, and Juan Romero followed with a single. After getting a ground out, Musser walked two of the next three batters, one on four pitches and one on five pitches. The walks were sandwiched by a Jeremy Lucas sacrifice fly.

"He's either ahead of his arm of he's wrapping behind it," Tracy said. "He just can't get comfortable on the mound. We'll see him throw a really good fastball away down in the zone and then lose his arm slow a little bit up and out of the zone. His curveball, from that point on, he can't repeat because his arm isn't in the right slot."

"Fultzy and I have been working on trying to stay back instead of rushing to the plate," Musser said. "That's when I get in trouble. I'd just say I'm a little out of rhythm at the moment. It's all about me finding it again and I'll be good."

Musser's five walks yesterday raised his season total to 13 in just 5 1/3 innings pitched (22.09 walks per 9 innings). His walk rate is second-worst in the New York-Penn League. Of his 57 pitches last night, 31 were strikes.

But this is all a vast change for the 20-year old former 21st-round selection. Even as he struggled to a 1-6 record and a 6.44 ERA last year in the Gulf Coast League, he wasn't walking batters at this rate.

He walked his fifth, and final, batter yesterday after Naquin led off the third inning with a double and Joe Wendle followed with a single. Musser's walk of Valerio loaded the bases. Musser was replaced by Luis Gonzalez who got a pair of strikeouts and a lazy fly ball to left field to end the inning without a run scoring.

"Mentally, I'm fine. I still have confidence in what I'm doing. I think I'm just one start away from having a great rest of the season," Musser said. "I think I made some positive strides this outing. I know it wasn't a great outing, but it was much better than the last two in terms of how I felt physically and mentally. I think I took a small step, but I'm feeling better."

"He's here every day and does what he's asked and he's working with Fultzy all the time," Tracy said. "It's just pitchers struggle, hitters struggle, and I think he's going through that phase. It's how you come out of those struggles that make you a pro ball player."

On the flip side, Mahoning Valley's Ryan Merritt was brilliant, throwing six shutout innings and throwing just 64 pitches (46 strikes). The Cutters had their best chance to score off Merritt in the first inning when Roman Quinn led off with a single, was bunted to second and stole third. But the speedster was stranded there by a comebacker to the mound and a ground ball to first base.

It was a familiar tone the rest of the night as Williamsport was just 1-for-17 with runners on base and 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. The Scrappers turned a trio of double plays behind Merrit.

Merritt is 2-0 against the Cutters this year, allowing just one run in 11 innings despite giving up 12 hits. Yan Carlos Olmo grounded into an inning-ending double play with two runners on in the second, Cameron Perkins grounded into a 4-3 double play in the fourth, and Brian Pointer lined into a double play in the sixth.

Just three Williamsport baserunners reached third base Sunday. Mitch Walding was the only one to score when he raced home on an Olmo groundout in the seventh. But by then, the Scrappers already led, 8-1.

Quinn, Trey Ford and Greene each had a pair of hits for the Cutters.

"Tonight, the plan (at the plate) just looked a little off at times," Tracy said. "Early in the count they had a plan and they hit a fastball. When they get deep in the count, they have to watch what (the pitcher) has done to other hitters. We talk about it and it's in their mind. But you can't develop a plan for them, they have to do it on their own.

"It's just a process."


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MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport catcher Logan Moore throws out Mahoning Valley's Hunter Jones on a ground ball in the fifth inning of Sunday's gameat Bowman Field.