CLEARWATER, Fla. - Hector Mercado pushed his pitcher. Not hard, just enough to get him off the top of the mound, where 7-foot Kyle Young stood, the midday sun over his head blinding his pitching coach.
"So I can see his eyes," said Mercado, who is 6-3, explaining his nudge. "So my neck doesn't do this."
He jerked his head backward and he laughed. This was in the fourth inning of a minor league game at the Carpenter Complex on Tuesday, when, for the first time this spring, Young, a Phillies 19-year-old lefthanded prospect, had pitched himself into a pickle against a matured group of Braves farmhands.
A double, a four-pitch walk and a sharp single had scored a run, and Young had followed with two consecutive pitches well wide the strike zone, necessitating Mercado's visit. He escaped with a groundout and a strikeout, allowing one run over two innings, reminded by batters older than those he faced in his abbreviated first pro season in the Gulf Coast League last summer that promise is reality's favorite punchline.
Young was 3-0 with a 2.67 earned run average in 27 innings for the Gulf Coast League Phillies last summer, graduating from relief work to two starts, including one in the playoffs.
"When I got down here, I really saw my control get better," he said. "Because in high school, it really wasn't that way, to be honest. I walked a whole lot more people there than I have down here."
That's one reason he was sitting there in the 22nd round last June. Another is that his fastball, despite his height, hovered in the low 80s. The real reason, though, was that most teams assumed he would follow the path of his idol, Randy Johnson, and other gangly arms and head to college while his body added muscle and stability. Most teams also didn't have the kind of dough the Phillies took into that draft, using a $225,000 signing bonus to lure Young, a Long Island native, away from a free ride with Hofstra.
So he's not your typical late-round pick. Not back in June, and especially not now.
"I saw him in a tryout camp a couple years ago," Charlie Manuel said as Young warmed up Tuesday. "He's improved 200 percent since then. He was throwing 82, 83. He's up around 90 now."
Indeed, Young's first three pitches Tuesday - all fastballs - registered 88, 89 and 90 on the gun. Take it for what it's worth, but a 10-year-old Baseball Prospectus theory about the success of pitchers who are 6-9 or taller estimates that a fastball thrown with such a long stride should be measured at almost 7 mph faster than what the gun indicates.
Johnson at Young's age, and even into his 20s, said Manuel, was a noisy ensemble of arms and legs, the trajectory of the ball as much a mystery to him as the batter he faced.
"Randy had a lower arm angle," said Manuel, "and he would fly all over the place. But this kid is already a little bit smoother. And since last year he's improved."
Unlike Johnson's unorthodox whip-like delivery, Young's comes at you from a more usual arm slot, slightly higher. That's both a bad and good thing. Bad because it's not nearly as deceiving. Good because it helps with control and causes less stress to the arm.
Now 225 pounds, Young added 20 pounds to the two inches he's grown since last June - one reason his velocity might have increased. There's a curveball that's still in the trial and error stage, but Young already has good mastery of a mid-70s changeup that has been an extremely effective finisher when he's painting the black with fastballs.
And he does so, most of the time. Effortlessly. Or so it appears. As the gun climbed to 90 and hovered around there Tuesday, Young seemed to exert less energy than a guy renting beach chairs.
"I'm not really trying to throw as hard as I can every pitch," he said. "They want me to master my pitches first before I start going crazy and adding all these pitches. They want to make sure I control pitches first. They want to make sure I have my true pitches down."
Loek Van Mil, the 7-1 Dutch-born veteran minor leaguer who has served as the closer for the surprising Netherlands team in the World Baseball Classic, could never control that 95-mph fastball of his enough to make the big-league jump. Eric Hillman, Jon Rausch, Andrew Brachman - core strength, economy of motion or a lack of it, has been the undoing of several power forward-sized pitchers who have emerged since Johnson righted his left arm into the Hall of Fame, but control and/or a lack of an effective second pitch has been their albatross.
Young has dabbled in hoops, soccer, football, even lacrosse.
"I still have a lot of work to do," he said. "But I like where I'm at with my coordination and balance. I think playing all the different sports that I did when I was younger helped me. I have a lot of coordination."
Which came in handy Tuesday on the mound. Not just in dealing with that fourth-inning jam, but in handling the pitching coach he temporarily blinded amid it all.
"Next time . . . " Mercado said with a smile. Another day, another teaching moment for the 19-year-old aspiring to be the major leagues' first 7-footer.
"You know what?" said Manuel. "I expect him to."