Clemson's sessions in bullpen proving vital

Clemson pitcher Scott Weismann has used a splitter to turn in strong outings against Georgia Tech and Virginia.

CLEMSON -- In a bullpen session earlier this year, Scott Weismann experimented with a new grip, spreading his right index and middle finger wider around the baseball.

The pitch darted, appearing like a fastball before dropping out of the strike zone. The Clemson sophomore summoned pitching coach Dan Pepicelli.

"He goes: 'Hey coach, watch my splitter,' " Pepicelli said. "Everyone thinks they have (discovered something). He cut loose a couple of them and it's like, 'man.' We kind of laughed about it for a second, then I said 'Hey, that was pretty good, see if you can do it again.' "

A fluke?

Again the ball broke late, diving out of the hitting area. Pitching serendipity. The pitch became an important third offering, effective against strong clubs like Georgia Tech (seven innings, four earned runs, one walk, seven strikeouts) and Virginia (seven innings, three earned runs).

Pitchers' great discoveries -- Mariano Rivera's cutter for instance -- the great performances, are often not born on a game day. Rather, such advancements manifest themselves days before an appearance, with

an audience of only a catcher and pitching coach in a bullpen session.

"They are huge," Weismann said of the side sessions. "It's all about trying to develop mechanics, muscle memory, so when you go into a game you don't have to think about it -- you just throw."

Unlike the pros, college starters pitch only once every seven days. Relievers might go a week without use. Bullpen sessions become even more important periods of maintenance.

"That's why those side pens are so important," Pepicelli said. "You have gotta make it as close to game-like as you can. Immediate accountability. You throw a pitch that is out of the zone -- 'Hey you have to get that there.' You have to create as much pressure and accountability as you would have in a game."

While Weismann's key bullpen moment resulted in a new pitch, Scott Firth's resulted in added throwing velocity.

"Everyone is different," Pepicelli said. "Some of it is mechanical. Some of it is pitch development. Some of it is velocity, teaching them to throw harder with their legs. For us, that is our batting practice. Everyone is locked in. No one is talking."

Firth, a freshman, has allowed just two runs in his last 12 1/3 innings.

Pepicelli said Firth is now in the mix to continue starting, as Clemson searches for pitching depth to balance an offense than now contains three batters with 10-plus home runs.

Pepicelli was throwing in the low 90s Wednesday in a win against Furman.

"He is totally different right now than when he started the year," Pepicelli said of Firth. "He was down lower, his arm was dragging, it just wasn't working. We were in a side pen, and I said 'pick your arm up, pick it up.' Wham. Wham. 'All right, that's where we gotta be.' "

Whether or not Firth is a long-term solution in the starting rotation, the answer will likely be found without an audience, in the home bullpen at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

"Sometimes it happens that way," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "Guys are constantly messing around, always experimenting."

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks.