Originally created 02/11/99

Once-dominating Braves closer still battling to regain control



ATLANTA -- The Reconstruction of Mark Wohlers is still a work in progress.

The former Atlanta Braves closer, who mysteriously lost the ability to throw strikes, stepped atop a bullpen mound at Turner Field on Wednesday, ostensibly to take part in a winter conditioning camp conducted by pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

But this was more than just an opportunity for Wohlers to loosen up his arm before spring training begins next week. This was part of the continuing effort to pick up the pieces of his shattered career.

"I think he did great today," Mazzone said after Wohlers threw about 30 pitches from the mound behind the left-field fence. "Mechanically, he executed what he wanted to do about 60 percent of the time, which is a big upgrade."

But it's still a long way from Wohlers regaining his status as one of baseball's most feared pitchers -- the guy who saved 97 games over three seasons, plus the clinching game of the 1995 World Series.

Several pitches skipped in the dirt, one bouncing so far in front of the plate that it hopped over the backstop and onto the field. A few other pitches sailed directly into the backstop, out of the catcher's reach.

Finally, Wohlers honed in on his target. It didn't matter that many of his pitches would have been balls in a game; at least they wound up in the catcher's glove.

Therefore, this was a good day.

"We've got to be patient and allow him to get through certain things that ... he's trying to square away," Mazzone said. "We're trying to keep on plugging to put it back together. What avenue that's going to take, I don't really know.

"At times, it comes out like he wants it to. At times, he's off target. But as long as there are times where it comes out like he wants to, there's no reason why he can't do it more often."

Wohlers seemed relaxed on the mound, smiling after one of his wayward pitches and chatting with Mazzone about his mechanics. But the pitcher has no desire to talk about his comeback, brushing off a reporter's interview request with bitterness in his voice, the scars of last season's nightmare still evident.

"I've got nothing to say," he said.

Wohlers' sudden meltdown has put him in the company of Steve Blass and Mitch Williams -- other pitchers who lost sight of the strike zone.

Last season, Wohlers had a 10.18 ERA in Atlanta, with 33 walks and seven wild pitches in 20 1-3 innings. He tried to regain his form in the minor leagues, but that only made matters worse. At Triple-A Richmond, he was 0-3 with a 20.43 ERA, walking 36 and throwing 17 wild pitches in 12 1-3 innings.

In addition to his problems on the field, Wohlers' wife filed for divorce and his mother suffered a heart attack.

"It's going to be tough for him," said Kerry Ligtenberg, who took over the closer's role for the Braves. "There's going to be a lot more focus on him this spring to see what happens, to see if he can come back. Everybody is going to be watching his performance. If he can overcome that and be tough enough to handle that, I think he's going to have no problem."

Ligtenberg finds it difficult to relate to Wohlers' woes.

"There have been times when I'm not able to throw anywhere close to the strike zone for one hitter, and that's frustrating in itself," Ligtenberg said. "To go out there every day and not know what's going to happen, where the ball is going to go, that's got to be extremely frustrating and wear on you after a while."

Wohlers continues to work with Braves psychologist Jack Llewellyn, who stood behind the mound during Wednesday's session.

"Some people think it's mechanical and some think it's mental," Llewellyn said. "But I don't think you can separate the two."

He uses visualization techniques with Wohlers, hoping to locate the once-menacing pitcher with the 100 mph fastball.

"We're looking for a person who's able to recover quickly from adversity," Llewellyn said. "Every pitcher goes through adversity. The question is: If he throws a bad pitch, how long does it take for him to recover?"

Wohlers is still searching for the answer.