Oakland A's Coaching Staff Q&A: Garvin Alston

Travis Banwart has made improvements.

The Oakland A's pitching contingent at the Arizona Fall League have a familiar face on the Phoenix Desert Dogs' coaching staff, as A's rehab pitching coordinator Garvin Alston is the Desert Dogs' pitching coach. We spoke with Alston last Friday about the A's AFL pitchers, why the team had a forfeit one of their games in the 7th inning, his role as the rehab coordinator and more...

OaklandClubhouse: I heard that Carlos Hernandez had to go home early from the Arizona Fall League because of injury, but can you tell me about the other A's pitchers on your staff right now?

Garvin Alston: Actually, Carlos didn't have to go home. He's still here and he's actually going to be activated on Wednesday [November 10]. He was just a little tired more than anything else. He wasn't injured or anything like that. He was just tired. We didn't want to risk him possibly getting hurt or jeopardize him for the future. We just gave him some down time and we brought in Lance Sewell to replace him for that time.

OC: Let's start with Travis Banwart, since he's been the starting pitcher of the group. How has he looked thus far?

GA: I've seen so far Travis making a huge improvement from the beginning. He's leading the league presently with four wins, but his other numbers didn't play up. He was getting hit a little bit because the hitters were seeing the ball extremely well, so we made small improvements with his hands so that he could create some deception so that the hitters wouldn't be able to pick the ball up as soon. It worked out in his last game [October 30; 5 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 5 K, 0 BB] and he's actually pitching tonight [last Friday, November 5; he wound up allowing 1 unearned run on 5 H and 3 BB with 4 K in 4.1 IP] so we will see if he can carry those improvements through.

Overall with Travis, I'm seeing a lot of improvements over the first time I saw him in Stockton three years ago. He has better command of his pitches, good action on his fastball and he's been sitting 90-91 every game that he has been out there with a plus change-up. I'm excited to see him grow and he has been getting better and better every time out.

OC: I know that Justin James was claimed by Milwaukee. What happens to players who move organizations during the AFL? Do they have to leave the league or do they continue on and represent their new clubs?

GA: That's a great question. [laughs] I'll tell you exactly what I was told. I was told that he is going to stay in the league, but they are not sure if he is going to stay on our team or if he is going to go to the Surprise team, but presently, as of [last Thursday], he was still with us. He doesn't have a Brewers uniform yet, so he can't pitch for us. It has just been a little bit of a mess with him knowing that we might need him tonight. Hopefully, his jersey will show up and he will be able to pitch one way or another [James did wind-up pitching for Phoenix on November 5 and is still on the roster].

OC: I know you had a game where you guys actually ran out of healthy arms who were available to pitch and had to end the game early. Have you ever had a situation like that in all of your years of baseball?

GA: No, not at all. Don Mattingly [the Phoenix manager] said it best, it was the perfect storm. The situation was related to injuries. We had two starting pitchers who broke down [physically] one start prior to. To fill their innings, we had to use the bullpen. To use the bullpen, every pitcher in the bullpen is restricted to x-amount of innings and x-amount of pitches. Well, we have a total of 15 guys in our bullpen and two of them were also hurt, so we really had 13. And now we have to use four-to-five bullpen guys on an every other day basis because two of our starters went down. And that was the situation.

What happened is that Manny Banuelos was our starter and he was slated to go five. Unfortunately, he only made it through three with a high pitch count, so that put an extra stress on the bullpen, which we had five guys available. Once we got to that seventh inning, they just started hitting the ball, the ball started finding holes, and we actually used three pitchers in that inning and that depleted our available pitchers. There was nothing else we could do about it.

OC: At that point, it was something like 15-1. It's probably one of those things that you wish you could do in the regular season. [laughs]

GA: Exactly. I agree with you 100 percent. Here's the thing that many people probably don't know. We could have finished that game, but that would have put us in jeopardy for finishing the next game, which was the next day. We were trying to plan ahead knowing that this game was basically a done deal, being down 15-1, and why would we risk using a pitcher for an inning or inning and a half when we will probably need him the next day. Donnie made a great decision and he said, ‘you know what? Let's be smart about this. We aren't going to jeopardize any organization's pitchers.' I said, ‘you're right Donnie. Let's do it.'

We spoke with the league and, of course, they weren't pleased with it, but that was the best way to deal with that situation.

OC: Is it a hard balance knowing when to push and when to pull back with pitchers who are basically throwing ‘overtime' and are often with other organizations?

GA: Absolutely, that's the thing that we have to be most careful of. Most of these guys now are starting their off-season programs in terms of working out and their bodies are starting to break down a little bit. Unfortunately, for some of the kids who are here, this is the first time they have played a full season. In talking to some of our pitchers, for some of them, it is the first time that they have gone to big league camp, so they started their seasons in February and now they are going into November. That's a long season for anyone, never mind a pitcher who is in his third or even second year, who is coming out here trying to give everything they've got to show everything they've got against very good hitters in this league.

It is a difficult task [for the pitchers]. We all know that it is an offensive-driven league and it is very few and far between that you get pitchers out here who absolutely dominate. The one name that comes to mind is Tommy Hansen when he was here a few years ago. But you find that rarely. For me, it is all about making sure that the health of the player comes first and then everything else follows behind that.

OC: Turning back to the A's guys on your staff, Michael Benacka has a lot of strike-outs and a lot of walks so far [10 K and 9 BB in 7 IP]. That has sort of been his M.O. in his career. What have you been working on with him?

GA: With Mike, we are just working on streamlining his line to the plate. He throws a little bit across his body and we are just trying to get that worked out so he is not pulling and pushing the ball as often as he did this season. He also, from time-to-time, his arm lagged behind a little bit. It's a Catch-22 with him a little bit because that [the arm lagging behind] is what makes his change-up really good. His arm lags behind and guys can't pick it up as well. But when he throws his fastball, he's late and the ball is up in the ‘zone and it is arm-side wide. Those are the two things that we are trying to work on. Overall, we are trying to get him through this season. He's never really played this long. His body is a little tired and his arm is just a click slower, so we are just working on basically streamlining his delivery, keeping his hands in perfect order and making sure his timing and rhythm are good.

OC: Lance Sewell got into a few games when he was filling in for Carlos and he pitched in Instructs before that. Had you had a chance to see him in Instructs? Did any of those improvements carry-over into this season?

GA: I did. With Lance, one thing he wanted to work on was coming up with a better secondary pitch. We all know that he has that split-finger, which is pretty devastating, but when you go up in levels, hitters will lay off that pitch until they get to two-strikes. He's trying to find that pitch that he can throw behind in the count or that can get him to that two-strike split-finger, which has been the change-up or even a slower curveball. He has thrown the change-up a few times [in the AFL] and it is has worked out pretty well.

For me, his issue is just getting ahead in counts. Once he gets ahead in counts, he's actually very, very good. That's been our main focus. Get ahead in the counts. You don't have to throw the ball over the middle. Work the corners. When you are going lefty-on-lefty, you know that they are going to swing at the first pitch, so make sure that you have good location. [As of Friday morning], he's held his own. He's only had one situation where he gave up a 3-2 homerun to, I believe, [Leslie] Anderson of the Rays. It was on an outside pitch that was down. So, to me, he has held his own. It was a tough situation for him because he was only down for a few days [after Instructs] and he had to get rebooted again, but he's doing a wonderful job.

OC: Turing to your regular season position, now that you have done that for a few years, what do you see the rehab program being like and do you enjoy that position?

GA: I love the rehab pitching coordinator position. It's eye-opening. I listen more to the medical-side, understanding how the body works and how everything is kinetically linked. It's actually helped me on the pitching-side. The pitching philosophies that I had before, it's validated that those thoughts were right. I've learned pitching things that I never knew before and it's helped to bring everything all together.

As far as being on the field and missing that aspect of it, of course you do. You always want your own team and your own pitching staff to create the relationships and everything else. But I love my position and without a doubt I am looking forward to the possibilities of moving up and doing things. Hopefully when my time is right, and when Keith Lieppman and David Forst and those guys think that the time is right for me to go somewhere, I'll be rolling and ready to go.

Right now, I'm happy. I enjoy working with the major league guys and also being able to touch the minor league guys down here in Arizona and work with them along with Ariel Prieto [the A's Rookie League pitching coach]. It's been a very good situation. A lot of long hours. A lot of time being put in. I was talking to my wife a few days ago. I started [coaching] on January 6 and I am still going. I don't know too many guys who can stake that claim right there. [laughs] It has been a long year and I am looking forward to the end, but I can't wait for it to start up again.

OC: When you start in January, will you be working with guys coming off of rehabs who are getting ready for spring training or guys who are still in the middle of rehabbing injuries?

GA: It's both. It's a combination of both. Myself and Jeff Collins, and Jeff takes the lead on the guys who are in the rehab portion of their recovery. We write the programs together and stay in contact with those players to make sure that the program is going through. When January 6th comes, they are more than welcome to come out and actually do the program with me to get a jump-start on things so that when the season starts, they are ready to rock-and-roll.

And then we have the guys who are extremely ambitious. The young kids who are in their first year or second year who want to come out and get into a little bit better weather and get going on their throwing program. We set that up and Ron Romanick [former A's bullpen coach and current A's pitching coach] and when Curt Young [former A's pitching coach] was here, they came out and just watched the guys. It's not a situation of doing anything with them. It's just being there and just watching them go through the program. For myself, I put my work in and have the programs ready and they get their throwing programs and just go about their business in that fashion.

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