CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was five innings out of 328 in a professional career that began with high expectations and now has spanned three minor-league seasons.
No, for a former first-round draft pick, five triple-A innings in the first game of a lazy September doubleheader at Allentown's Coca-Cola Park are nothing to celebrate.
Yet Joe Savery said he never felt better about five innings in his life.
In his seven games last season with Lehigh Valley, the Phillies' triple-A affiliate, Savery walked 5.5 batters per nine innings. But in those five innings - after two shaky ones that looked like the old scuffling Savery - he needed just 45 pitches to finish a seven-inning complete game. He faced 16 batters.
"That hadn't happened since Little League," said Savery, who was the 19th pick overall in the 2007 draft.
So the 24-year-old has confidence heading into the 2010 season because of those five innings. They came in his last start of a 2009 season in which Savery won 16 games between double A and triple A. But it was a season that only exacerbated Savery's primary roadblock to the majors: control.
In 1511/3 innings last season, Savery walked 77 and struck out 96. With Lehigh Valley, he walked five more batters (24) than he struck out (19).
"There's going to have to be progress," Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said. "No question. Anyone can read the stats and look at last year. The command has to get better."
But Savery cites a late-season epiphany as reason to be optimistic. With the help of triple-A pitching coach Rod Nichols, he corrected an issue in his delivery with about two weeks remaining.
Nichols noticed that Savery wasn't pushing off correctly with his left foot. At times, the back of his left foot was off the rubber. That affected Savery's balance on the mound and ultimately where his pitches ended up.
Nichols put an emphasis on pushing through the ankle so Savery wouldn't raise the foot and could gain more power and control.
Once Savery implemented the change in his delivery, he said, his bullpen sessions were the "best they had ever been." The change wasn't immediate in games; his penultimate start at Lehigh Valley lasted just 32/3 innings and resulted in five runs and four walks allowed.
In his final start, Savery threw just 28 of his first 52 pitches for strikes over the first two innings.
"Then it kind of clicked in those last five innings," he said.
Tuffy Gosewisch, who has caught Savery in the minors for the last three seasons, said the lefthander has struggled when he thinks too much on the mound. But when Savery has gotten into jams because of his inconsistent control, he has found ways out. That's how he won 16 games with less-than-stellar numbers.
"He always made a pitch when he had to," Gosewisch said.
That was the most maddening thing about it, LaMar said. He has seen flashes of brilliance by Savery but said there has not been enough concentration on a pitch-by-pitch basis. That will have to change in 2010.
"He's at that stage of his career where the development continues but the results are very important," LaMar said.
Mechanically, Savery believes he has an important piece figured out. As a college star at Rice, Savery was an accomplished hitter, too, and he didn't concentrate on pitching until he turned pro. (Both LaMar and Savery said there has been no thought of converting him into a position player.)
When he had decent starts with solid control in the minors, Savery said, he didn't really understand why they happened. And when he thought too much about a bad start, it tended to bother him beyond one day.
"When you're walking guys," Savery said, "you're telling yourself, 'Man, this is miserable. I know I'm going to hear about it after the game. I know the reporters are going to ask about it. The coaches are going to ask about it. My parents are going to ask about it.' "
So when Nichols entered the clubhouse at the end of the season and showed Savery an earlier photo of him that was used in a promotional calendar for the IronPigs, Savery laughed.
The photo showed his left foot well off the rubber - the exact problem that Nichols later spotted and corrected.
"It was actually a great feeling," Savery said, "because it's like, 'Man, I think this is really something good we have here.' "