When Brandon McCarthy took the mound for the Dodgers on July 27, he began the day with a sparkling 2.39 earned-run average. He’d only pitched four games, but they were encouraging. It appeared the veteran right-hander could pick up where he left off before the Tommy John surgery that wiped out 14 months of his career.
That day, McCarthy threw 83 pitches in four innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. Only 51 were strikes. His control betrayed him a little more with each successive start: 85 pitches and 48 strikes against the Rockies; 65 pitches and 31 strikes against the Red Sox; 51 pitches and 22 strikes against the Pirates. That was on Aug. 21. His ERA after that game: 3.63.
McCarthy then went on the disabled list with stiffness in his right hip. As it turns, his most pressing problem was much worse.
“A couple weeks ago I was praying that someone would call from the front office and say, ‘shut this down, we’ll see you next year, let’s get things figured out.’ And you can’t feel farther away from the team at that point,” said McCarthy, who allowed two runs in 5 ⅓ innings in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies.
McCarthy categorized his slow decline as a “case of the yips.” That’s a generalized bit of sports jargon, applicable to those who struggle with the mental mechanics of putting golf balls and kicking field goals.
For McCarthy, it meant “you kind of forget how to throw a ball, at least in a competitive situation.”
“This last month has been a fairly miserable month mentally,” he said. “You just kind of don’t know if this is the end of your career, what the hell you’re looking at.”
McCarthy said he experienced a turning point in the bullpen about two weeks ago where he made a crucial adjustment to his mechanics. His ability to throw strikes after that, and the confidence that came with it, made him a candidate to start Sunday in place of left-hander Rich Hill.
It so happened that McCarthy allowed the Dodgers to win a close game against the Rockies — and by extension, win their fourth consecutive National League West title.
“I think something probably crept in while I was going through the whole rehab process, and the rehab process you’re not focused on your execution, your mechanics,” he said. “You’re really just focused on ‘do I feel good this day?’ Finally I started working on something mechanically. I don’t know if the yips are totally mental. I think something mental comes from something physical. As I got through it, I feel something physical has opened this up and now I feel back to normal.
“The last two weeks have been a nice bright spot. Then to get back today, to be a part of this, is more than I could ask for.”