To call Stephen Fife's first three starts of the season rough would be an understatement. The Albuquerque Isotopes' right-hander was hammered to the tune of an 11.91 ERA.
That forced Fife to regroup and take a mental break of sorts. When he returned to the rotation he tossed six scoreless innings at Fresno on April 26, an outing that convinced the Dodgers to give him a shot at making a spot start against the Marlins on Sunday.
"It was really nice to get back up there," Fife said after rejoined Albuquerque on Wednesday. "I feel like I did my job for the team. I knew they were in a tough spot with innings at that point."
Fife's early struggles were neither mechanical nor injury-related. It ended up being in the most difficult place of all — his head.
"He's definitely one of those analytical guys," Isotopes pitching coach Glenn Dishman said. "So if he doesn't feel a pitch come out right, normally his first thought is why didn't it come out right, instead of saying well, it didn't come out right, let's throw this one better."
All of that started back in the spring, where the Dodgers did not play a normal schedule due to their trip to Australia. That in turn caused Fife and other some other players to be sent to minor-league camp earlier than they normally would have been.
"Spring training wasn't so great for me in terms of just the whole thing," Fife said. "My last three outings, they looked really good on paper, but I think I threw a grand total of 130 pitches in 14 innings. It was a lot of early swings and not a lot of pitch-to-pitch intensity. It was too easy."
Fife's first three starts, at Tacoma and Reno and then home vs. Reno, saw him give up 16 runs, 15 earned, on 25 hits and 7 walks in 11.1 innings. He took a six-day break in between the loss to Reno on April 14 and then returned to pitch two innings of relief at Salt Lake on April 21.
Five days later, Fife returned to the rotation and had his best start of the young season. He allowed just two hits and one walk in six shutout innings in a victory at Fresno where he stopped battling himself and started attacking the hitters, Dishman said.
"Once he got to the real season, I think he started competing against himself," Dishman said. "(He was) trying to fix pitches and fix this, fix that, instead of (saying), 'All right, what am I going to do to get the hitter out?' Then finally we had a discussion where we decided your arm is fine, your mechanics are fine, everything is fine, now go get somebody out."
That start helped convince the Dodgers to give Fife the call when they needed an spot starter. He flew to Miami and threw six-plus innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and one walk while striking out five batters.
"I made some adjustments and I was still on the 40-man roster, so I knew it was a matter of time before they were going to need something," Fife said. "And it worked out."
Getting that call-up should be a good confidence boost going forward for Fife. Or at least that is the hope.
"I think that shows him (he doesn't) have to revamp everything and start from scratch," Dishman said. "He can think, I just need to change my focus and I know the Dodgers have confidence in me."
Now it just a matter of settling into a set routine again and getting the ball every five days. As both Fife and Dishman know, that is far from guaranteed this season.
"It just seems like this year there's more (transactions) this year, there's not just the starting pitcher injuries," Fife said. "There's relievers, catchers, position player guys ... you name it."