An inch of separation, a world of difference

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — I was sitting up in the press box covering the Astros’ Spring Training game against the Blue jays on Friday, when Matt Lindstrom strolled to the hill for yet another Grapefruit League frame. Then, with a man on first, one out and a 1-2 count, he threw a pitch that made me jump out of my chair and go, Whoa!
It was a slider — a pitch Lindstrom has been throwing for pretty much his entire professional career — but this one had more bite than any I’ve ever seen from him before. So, I asked Lindstrom about it after his outing, and indeed, it was a different slider — his grip was different.
I asked him how, and he refused to show me on the ball (“You know how some players are superstitious?” he told me. “Well, I’m superstitious about that.”) I did get him to tell me, though, that the major difference is the fact that he’s putting his fingers together now instead of a bit apart.
“It’s feeling good,” Lindstrom (pictured, Associated Press) said about the slider. “It’s something I contribute to [new pitching coach] Brad Arnsberg showing me a different grip. We had a really good bullpen session about two weeks ago, and I’ve been using that grip ever since in these games, and it’s worked out for me so far. It’s still a work in progress for me, but it’s coming out of my fastball plenty good, and it’s sinking down, and it’s working well.”
Think that’s not really that big a deal? Well, Lindstrom is one of the rare pitchers who can crank his fastball up to the triple-digits on a semi-consistent basis. But in the big leagues, you have to be able to have command of a secondary pitch (the exception being Mariano Rivera’s cutter, of course). It doesn’t matter if you throw 120 mph. If that’s all you throw, these big league hitters will get your timing pretty quick and square it up. 
Lindstrom wants that secondary pitch of his to be the slider. But last year, it simply wasn’t there for him, and it was a big reason why he posted a 5.89 ERA in 54 games for the Marlins. He converted 15 of his 17 save chances, sure, but he became unreliable and lost his job to Leo Nunez down the stretch. 
Again, a big reason was the slider — the fact that Lindstrom couldn’t rely on it and became a one-pitch guy most of the time. But he said that slider is noticeably more effective now than last year.
“You can tell when the hitter swings, they’re not seeing that good out of my hand,” he said. “Before, it was popping up and they could see it, and they’d just lay off. So far, so good.”
Remember that pregame speech by Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday”? (The inches we need are everywhere around us!) Well, one inch could mean all the difference for this Astros team. 
One inch can make Lindstrom’s slider go from shaky to deadly.
One inch can finally make the kid with the golden arm a reliable closer.
One inch can give the Astros a formidable back-end-of-the-bullpen option.
One inch can eventually make Houston a contender in the National League Central.
OK, let me stop before I keep getting carried away. 
— Alden Gonzalez

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