Tweak works wonders for Taschner

Tweak works wonders for Taschner

BRADENTON, Fla. -- With his fourth scoreless appearance of the Grapefruit League season on Thursday, reliever and non-roster invitee Jack Taschner continues to make a strong case for one of the final spots in the Pirates' bullpen to begin the regular season.

After completely overhauling his mechanics this past offseason, Taschner has limited opponents to two hits and one walk in his four scoreless Grapefruit League innings this spring. He has struck out seven.

"I feel walking in here that I'm 10 times a better pitcher than I've ever been," Taschner said. "I love it. I feel like I'm way more effective."

The 31-year-old lefty reliever has his former head coach -- Tom Lechnir, from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh -- largely to thank for that. The two met this offseason and decided to substantially change Taschner's arm slot.

Taschner, who has played parts of five seasons in the Majors with the Giants and Phillies, had pitched his entire career with a delivery motion in which his left arm came high and over his head. He maintained fairly strong velocity that way, but his command was never all that sharp. And after finding himself back in Triple-A last year for the first time since 2006, Taschner felt he had to find a way to reinvent himself.

"It got to the point where my effectiveness was so up and down and so erratic that something had to give," Taschner said. "Either I was going to find my way out of a game or make an adjustment. Being a very mediocre pitcher or worse isn't going to keep you around, and I like to play."

With aid from Lechnir, Taschner lowered his arm slot and changed his positioning on the rubber. He described the transition so far as a fairly seamless one, even though it did take the lefty a while to find a breaking pitch that he felt comfortable throwing from the new arm slot.

In addition to improving his command, Taschner is hopeful that the changes will make him tougher against left-handed hitters. Oddly enough, since he is a left-handed reliever, Taschner has been more effective against right-handed hitters, who have a .261 career batting average against him, than left-handed ones (.293) in his career.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has talked often about wanting to carry relievers who can be effective to both sides of the plate. As Huntington considers the left-hander for one of the last vacancies in the 'pen, Taschner's ability to do just that will weigh heavily in the organization's ultimate decision.

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"To be able to make our club, he's going to have to be able to get both sides out," Huntington said. "We've seen the ability [to get left-handed hitters out], even with the slot change. But that's going to be very important for us as a team that he can continue to do that."

So far this spring, Taschner has faced eight left-handed hitters. He has retired six, walked one and allowed a single. Taschner has struck out three of those left-handed hitters -- including Philadelphia's Ryan Howard.

"He can command the ball," manager John Russell said. "That's important. He's doing pretty well so far."

Tascher, unsolicited, raved about the atmosphere here in camp and noted that part of the reason he signed with Pittsburgh this offseason was because of what he had heard about the management team and coaching staff. Of course, knowing that there would be a legitimate chance to make the bullpen out of Spring Training also weighed heavily in his decision.

With Joel Hanrahan unlikely to be on the Major League roster on Opening Day, the Pirates' bullpen looks like it will have two openings to fill before April 5. Octavio Dotel, Evan Meek, Brendan Donnelly, Javier Lopez and D.J. Carrasco are expected to assume five of the seven spots. Lopez is the only lefty in that group.

"Really, honestly, I like it here," Taschner said. "I really hope that I keep doing well and the opportunity stays as is. I don't see myself as a Triple-A pitcher, so the opportunity to make the team out of big league camp is appealing."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.