Pitch perfect: Jack Widhalm’s mental side

By Shane Hulsey

Pitchers, especially at the highest level, are physical specimens. They can throw baseballs so fast that they just seem like a blur. They can make baseballs move as if they are defying the laws of physics. They can literally be “perfect” on any given day.

But what goes on inside the mind of a pitcher? How do they prepare for a game? What sorts of mental adjustments do they make over the course of a game, an inning or even a single batter? How do they recover from a bad outing?

To dive deeper into these questions, I consulted Jack Widhalm, a right-handed hurler for Quincy University. Widhalm, a sophomore from Columbia, Missouri, led the Hawks with a 1.67 ERA in 27 innings as a true freshman in 2018.

Before taking the mound, Widhalm said it’s all about clearing the mind of every distraction possible so he can focus all his energy on his one duty: to get batters out.

“I just try not to think about anything,” he said. “Every pitcher is different, but I just try to take my edge of ‘I’m better than the guy at the plate’ up to the mound. I just trust myself and trust my preparation to take over.”

But what if he struggles? What if, for whatever reason, he just can’t seem get anybody out? Widhalm said, although clearing the mind is a good thing in terms of limiting distractions, pitchers will continue to struggle if they are unaware of what their body is telling them.

“Say you’re missing a location you want to hit,” he said. “I think it’s important to have some cues. Like if you’re pulling your front shoulder open and the ball’s sailing (missing high to the pitcher’s arm side), you can tell yourself, ‘I just need to keep my front shoulder closed.’ Or maybe you’re guiding the ball a little bit. You can tell yourself, ‘Just throw it.’ I think having mental cues like that is good instead of saying to yourself, ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that,’ and totally freaking out on the mound.”

That’s during the game, but what about after the game? What if the outing just goes from bad to worse and nothing works to keep it from spiraling? How does a pitcher recover from this? For Widhalm, it has to do with everything but the one thing has been his passion virtually his whole life.

“I just try not to even think about baseball,” he said. “It’s obviously a game we love, but the more we think about it, the more we’re going to tire our mind out. The more you can exercise your mind in different aspects, the better off you’ll be.”

As Kevin Costner’s character, Billy Chapel, tells himself in the 1999 film For Love of the Game, “Clear the mechanism.”

Widhalm and Chapel could be best friends.

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