The Ducks’ Stephen Tarpley finally is comfortable on the mound again, and Atlantic League hitters aren’t exactly thrilled about that.
The lefty starter, who was a reliever with the Yankees, Mets and Marlins, has been virtually untouchable in June. Five scoreless innings in a seven-inning victory over the High Point Rockers on Thursday brought his scoreless-innings streak to 20. He hasn’t allowed a run since June 4.
“I feel like I’ve really found myself on the mound again,” Tarpley said. “I think a lot of it is I’ve just been able to kind of break the game down pitch-by-pitch and slow it down. We’ve had a lot of good bullpen work in the past few weeks and I’ve been feeling a lot more comfortable in the starting role.”
The 29-year-old had his elbow cleaned out last June, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. He spent the first half of 2021 in the Mets’ system — including one ill-fated big league appearance in which he didn’t record an out — and was released in July.
“I felt like I was strong enough and recovered enough to come and help this team out and make an impact,” Tarpley said of joining the Ducks. “I made that decision to come back and I think this year I’ve just been feeling stronger throughout the year.”
One of the reasons Ducks manager Wally Backman decided to make Tarpley a starter was because he thought it would give the pitcher a better chance to be seen by scouts. Tarpley has embraced the role, expanding his repertoire to include an effective sinker and a changeup in addition to his fastball and slider.
“Starters have to have three pitches and he has three pitches,” Backman said. “He has a swing-and-miss slider and a lot of life on his fastball . . . He has a live fastball with movement in the strike zone and his slider has been outstanding. It’s definitely a big swing-and-miss pitch.”
Tarpley started for USC and was converted into a reliever in 2017 while in the Yankees’ system. In 31 appearances with the Yankees in 2018-19, he made only one start.
He was a major league reliever through and through. But now the calculus may have changed.
“After getting that surgery done [last] June, I’ve had a full offseason to kind of work on my mental game,” said Tarpley, who is 2-3 with a 3.22 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 36 1⁄3 innings in 10 appearances (six starts) this year. “I’ve had a full offseason to work on mechanics and stuff like that. I cleaned a lot of stuff up and I think now I’m in a spot where I can get back to starting in the big leagues, or be a good long reliever out of the bullpen or, if they need me, I can go and do a close job.”
Options are tremendously attractive to any organization, and now Tarpley has them.
“He bought into it, he wanted to start,” Backman said. “He’s made those adjustments and he’s just gotten better . . . You can see why this guy has been in the big leagues.”
S. Maryland wins first half
For the first time in the Backman era, the Ducks will be playing meaningful second-half games. Southern Maryland, which got off to a fast start, clinched the North Division championship last week and an automatic playoff berth.
The Ducks have won both first-half championships under Backman (2019, 2021) but will need to win the second-half title or earn a wild-card berth (which would happen if either first-half division winner wins the second half) to make the playoffs.
“I think when we were 30 or 35 games into the first half, the numbers didn’t look good,” Backman said. “We had to play .900 baseball [to catch Southern Maryland] and that’s just not going to happen.”
But as he’s said for weeks, Backman is very confident that the team’s first-half problems, mainly stemming from the pitching staff, have been fixed. He expects the Ducks to play a lot better in the next 2 1⁄2 months.
“There’s always something to try and improve your club,” Backman said. “But right now, with the way we’re playing, with the way we’ve got our pitching and the bullpen additions that we’ve made, I believe that we’re good enough to win now.”