by Doug Wedge
When you think about milestones in Canadian baseball history, the 1996 Toronto Blue Jays likely don't make your list. Unlike the World Series teams from the early '90s, this team finished in fourth place, a distant eighteen games out of first. Despite the poor win-loss record, this season produced a first: the team's and Canadian baseball's first Cy Young Award winner, Pat Hentgen.
Since joining the Blue Jays in 1991, Hentgen showed the promise of being a dominant right-handed pitcher. In 1993, he won nineteen games and was named to his first of two consecutive All-Star teams. Banking on this promise, the Blue Jays signed Hentgen to a four-year, multi-million dollar contract after the 1994 season.
Although expectations were high, Hentgen's record regressed in 1995 with more losses than wins and an earned run average climbing over five.
Hentgen sees a few reasons for the slip in numbers. "I think I got a little too comfortable. Not from a work standpoint as far as working out, but I just feel like, mentally, I got to the point where I felt like, 'I've got this. I'm just gonna put my hat on and my glove and run out and win fifteen games and go to the All-Star game again.'"
Looking behind the statistics is revealing, too. Hentgen explains, "I think that there's a fine line with starting
pitching when it comes to ERA. There are a lot of intangibles. There are calls that are missed. There's a play that's not made. There's a blooper that falls in. There's a little bit of luck involved when it comes to ERA, and then
there's even more luck when it comes to wins because not only do you have to have run support but you also have to have bullpen support. And, I think if you go back and look at that year, I think you'll see that I left seven times with the lead, and all seven times, I got a no decision. So, I think that my record could have easily been sixteen and fourteen or sixteen and twelve."
With the set-back, Hentgen was committed to rebounding in 1996.
"I remember going into spring training in '96 just getting back to the basics and really focusing . . . and only worrying about just this pitch in front of me. I think I grew mentally. I grew as a pitcher. I wanted to prove
Catcher Charlie O'Brien who caught most of Hentgen's starts in 1996 sees another development that helped Hentgen: finding the outside part of the plate.
"Pat liked to pitch inside. Pound hitters. That's fine, but Pat's fastball had a natural cutter movement to it.
What would happen is that he'd pitch inside, but, because of the way the ball moved, it tended to wind up over the plate, especially against right-handed hitters. That really reduced his margin of error. If he missed his
location by a little, the ball cut right down the middle. Guys could waffle it."
Adjusting, O'Brien asked Hentgen to locate more pitches on the outside black of the plate.
"The first game we worked together, I set up and called for a lot of pitches down and away," O'Brien says.
Immediately, the tandem achieved excellent results.
"Easy inning after easy inning," remembers O'Brien. "Pat went up against Mark Langston who was an All-Star, one of the better pitchers in the game at that time, and he won. Threw a five-hit shutout."
With his renewed determination and a change in pitch location, Hentgen transitioned.
"I had a decent first half [in '96]. It wasn't that great. And then, in the second half, I just got on a roll."
The roll included a streak in August when he threw five consecutive complete games. Hentgen credits
Blue Jays pitching coach Mel Queen and catcher O'Brien for the exceptional results.
"I think [it was] the combination of Charlie and Mel keeping me focused and keeping me very routine oriented.
And, I was able to just have a really good three month stretch there, the last three months of '96."
Queen, Hentgen says, built his confidence.
"He knew how to make you feel good. He taught you how to believe. When times are tough and sometimes they
don't go your way, the next day, there he was, talking about your game and all the good things you did and teaching me not to focus on the negatives."
While Queen emphasized the positives, O'Brien understood when to push his pitcher's buttons and challenge him. Hentgen says, "Charlie, although he was a great catcher, he was very good at knowing the personalities of the pitchers he was catching. He knew my personality, and he knew he could chew me out a little bit, and it was going to work in a positive way for us. I was a guy that he could yell at and crawl on and it would motivate me
and make me better."
O'Brien describes Hentgen as intense, sometimes too intense. While certain situations called for O'Brien to light a fire under Hentgen, others needed Hentgen to soften his edge.
"Sometimes, he'd be too amped up, too pissed off if something didn't go his way. Then, he'd want to work faster than he needed to, like if he hurried up that could get him out of a jam. When that happened, my job was to go out and tell him, 'Okay, Pat. I'm going to give you a breather right here. Let's slow down. Your heart's going one hundred miles an hour. Clear your mind here. Get your breath under you. Get your legs ready to go. Here's how we're going to get this guy.' He was kind of like a horse that wants to run too fast and you have to rein him in. Slow him down so he can finish the race."
Hentgen finished the '96 season winning twenty games and leading the league in complete games (ten), shutouts (three), and innings pitched (265 2/3). In a close vote, he edged Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees as the American League winner of the Cy Young Award, selected as the league's best pitcher.
Hentgen didn't think he would win the award.
"I was surprised that it happened because we were a below .500 team. And, playing in Canada. . . , we, the Blue Jays, don't get recognized as much as the U.S. teams. There's just no ifs, ands, or buts about it."
While Hentgen appreciated the award for his individual achievements, he was pleased to be the first pitcher playing for a Canadian team to win the award.
"[Toronto's] the only team in Canada, so it's really like playing for a country versus playing for a city."