Matt Pushard’s pro career didn’t get off to the best start.
The former Brewer High School and University of Maine standout pitcher signed a free agent deal with the Miami Marlins on July 23 and went 1-1 with a 14.73 earned run average for their rookie league team last summer. He walked eight in just 3 ⅔ innings and allowed six earned runs and four hits.
But Pushard didn’t let that stop him.
The 25-year-old is now off to an impressive start this season for the Beloit Sky Carp in the High-Class A Midwest League.
He is leading the team in saves, converting all three of his opportunities.
He has appeared in five games and has allowed six hits and two earned runs over six innings. He has struck out eight and walked just one. He has a 3.00 earned run average and opponents are hitting just .174 off him.
He began the season in Class A ball with the Jupiter Hammerheads and posted a save in his only outing. He struck out two in his inning of work.
“Everything is going really well. I got a lot of coaching before I left for the offseason,” Pushard said.
“The biggest thing that has turned it around for me is I’ve been able to slow the game down when it comes to pitching. I’m not rushing through my delivery. I’m making sure I’m taking every step to hit the little cues that have been working for me lately.”
He explained that he uses his back leg and stride to get his fastball to ride in on righthanded hitters, and to get his curveball consistently in the strike zone.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Pushard throws a four-seam fastball at 94-96 mph and his curve is usually 81-83 mph. He also throws a change-up and intends to add a slider that he’s been practicing to his arsenal.
His slider will be 86-88 mph and it is a much different pitch than his curve.
“It looks like a fastball coming out of my hand,” Pushard said. “I haven’t thrown it in a game yet. It’s still a work in progress. But when I get more time throwing it, it will be pretty effective.”
Beloit pitching coach Jason Erickson said he’s pleased with the job Pushard has done for the Sky Carp so far this season.
Erickson said Pushard’s fastball has good life to it and he has a quality curve to go with it. The slider will complement the fastball and curve and Erickson said although Pushard doesn’t throw it very often, his change-up is also effective.
Erickson noted that Pushard has a “slow heart beat,” meaning he is calm in high-leverage situations with the game on the line.
Pushard said the mental aspect of his game has developed.
“You have to execute the pitch at hand and not worry about the pitch before or about the next pitch,” said the former All-America East Second Team selection after he led the league with nine saves last season and struck out 44 hitters in 30 innings.
He said he has been trying to read hitters more and believes he can learn a lot about a hitter by watching him swing in the on-deck circle.
“The swing path they’re at is probably where they want to hit the baseball,” Pushard said. “You learn a lot from sitting and watching. How to sequence pitches and being able to work both arm side and extension. So far, it has been giving me luck.”
He sits down and watches videotape with Erickson after each outing as they dissect every pitch.
Pitchers sharing notes on how to get hitters out is something Pushard and his teammates did at UMaine and that continues in minor league ball, where teams play a six-game series against each other.
“When you play a team six games in a row, you get to know the hitters’ tendencies and your teammates will tell you what they had success with against a certain hitter,” Pushard said.
Pushard is one of three Maine natives and former UMaine pitchers who are at the High-A level or higher.
Cody Laweryson of Moscow, Maine, was a 14-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins and is pitching for the AAA St. Paul Saints. The reigning Texas League (AA) reliever of the year has made seven outings for the Saints and is 1-1 with a 5.19 ERA. He has struck out seven and walked four in 8 ⅔ innings.
Bangor’s Justin Courtney has been shuffling between the Binghamton Rumble Ponies (AA) and Syracuse Mets (AAA) and has a save and a 4.91 ERA over 3 ⅔ innings for the two teams.
Former Black Bear first team All-American righty Nick Sinacola from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, a seventh round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, is off to a great start for the Eugene Emeralds in the High-A Northwest League with a sparking 1.38 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 13 innings and only eight hits allowed.