Rustich Ready for More Innings

Rustich is 1-2 as a starter

Brant Rustich, the Mets 2007 second overall pick, endured a checkered start to the current season. An early arm injury, which delayed his first appearance until early May, coincided with the organization's decision to initially move him to the bullpen before sliding him into the starting rotation in mid-June. Now, Rustich has found a rhythm and is focused on strengthening the depth of his game.

Six-foot-six, 230 pound Brant Rustich piggybacked 2007 top overall selection Eddie Kunz as another big, hard-throwing right-hander who fans envisioned one day lighting up the radar gun from the back of the Mets' bullpen. What he accomplished during his rookie season split between Kingsport and Brooklyn certainly aided in those hopes, as he blazed through 15 appearances, registering a combined 3-0 record, 1.57 ERA, 21/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .125 opponent's batting average in 23 innings pitched.
Yet an up-and-down stint in the Hawaiian Winter League was perhaps an omen of what would come of Rustich's start to the 2008 season. Wear and tear of his triceps muscle in his throwing arm kept him in St. Lucie through the start of the season, then when expecting to remain in St. Lucie for his season debut, he found out he was off the Savannah to fill a spot in the bullpen.

Nonetheless, he accepted his assignment and his role. The idea was to ease Rustich into the season and the eventual move into the rotation. As a reliever, Rustich went 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in 11 appearances, but after not starting since his sophomore year at UCLA, he blocked out his uncertainty about starting and eventually found comfort in its opportunity.

"My season has been going really well. At first, I was unsure about whether I wanted to be a starting pitcher, but once I got into a routine and got a feel for the position, I noticed the changes in my game, things got better, I really started to like the new role," he detailed.

His move into the rotation remains a delicate transition after injuries marred his past going back to his final years in UCLA. Pitch counts and innings limits were set for Rustich, but though he does not go as deep into games as he would like, he found many benefits in the starter's routine.

"There were some adjustments to be made, but the biggest thing was simply being able to throw more. Being in relief, I came in every so often and it didn't feel like I threw as often as needed to get into a rhythm because starters were throwing deep into games."

"I didn't get as many bullpen sessions as I do now. I would go five to seven days between throwing off the mound, and having the schedule of knowing when I'll throw each time, plus 40 pitches off the bullpen mound the next day it comes together."

His first start on June 20 did not go as hoped when the Rome Braves tagged him for five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings pitched. Immediately, he and Sandgnats pitching coach Jonathan Hurst went to work on his mechanics which were long and minimizing his power.

"I had a rough first start but in that first bullpen session after that start, we worked on a couple things especially correcting the fact that I was getting long in my body, collapsing too much, so I came more compact and my velocity picked up. I was throwing about six miles per hour harder in my next start and building up my innings," he explained.

"Out of the bullpen, it seems like where I have good stuff and then some days my mechanics felt uncomfortable and I'd be off, but lately, now that I've figured out my mechanics, I've got into a rhythm and I've gone from there," he continued.

The most important result of those side workouts has been his resurgent velocity. When he arrived in Brooklyn last year, Rustich's fastball sat at 95 MPH and even touched 97-98 MPH at times, but his heat slipped away at the beginning of the season. He acknowledged his new regimen was key as not only is his velocity up, but he is experiencing a rise of velocity as the game goes on.

"The biggest difference is in my velocity. Early on, I was sitting 91 on my fastball and maxing out at 94, but now I'm sitting 94 and getting up to 97. That big jump is a result of figuring things out."

"My fastball command has got a lot better and deeper into games I've seen my velocity climb. I'll start the game around 91, but by the third, fourth, fifth inning, I'm up there towards 95 with ease. The command even gets better as the game goes on. It's one of those things I didn't really get to experience as a relief pitcher, so it's been fun."

With his fastball peaking and his devastating slider in tow, plus a changeup which he throwing with higher volume in each start, Rustich is geared up to become a more dynamic starter each time he takes to the hill. A nasty blister on his middle finger was a setback, but he knows that consistency and a structured patterns are the best way to overcome any injury—a lesson he has repeated far too often in his young career.

"The biggest thing as a starter is get that rhythm," he said. "That's something I've been working on all season. Setbacks are something to deal with and a lot of what is needed to succeed from this level on is overcoming those setbacks."

After his late start and mid-season move to the bullpen, Rustich simply wants to eat innings whether in the regular season or possibly made up in a winter league assignment. With only 49 1/3 career innings pitched through July 31, he wants to gear up and prove that he can handle a larger work load in the starting rotation.

"Last year they told me I probably would never throw more than five innings at a start, ever. That's what they told me last year and I think they're using that same approach this year. I think I can keep going, but the coaches pull me back. I think they're trying to treat me as a first year player."

"I would really like to get back to where I know can pitch. I want to get to five or six or seven innings on a regular basis. That's the goal is to get to those innings consistently, win games and just be as in charge on the mound. I want to go over 100 innings, but that may mean a winter ball assignment which I wouldn't mind, but we'll see what the Mets have planned for me," he closed.

InsidePitchMagazine.com Recommended Stories