CLEARWATER, Fla. – Hoby Milner was playing catch back home in Texas this winter, when he finally found the pitch that could determine how his career plays out.
Last season, Milner had the numbers of a specialist, as the lefthander dominated lefthanded hitters but was feasted on by righthanders. He spent the final months of the season in the major leagues, practically pitching with just two offerings: a fastball and a change-up. His breaking ball was terrible, he said; he needed that third pitch to be more than just a one-out, lefthanded pitcher.
"I would like to pitch every day and face one lefty every day. Like that would be cool if I could throw in 160 games. Woo hoo. Throw five pitches a game and you can throw every game," Milner said. "But if you can do both, that's better. I'm more valuable if I can get righties out."
Milner struggled with his curveball since he started throwing sidearmed in 2015; he couldn't find the correct wrist action when releasing the pitch. Other sidearmers offered advice, but their arm slot was lower. Nothing seemed to change as he tinkered with it last season. Finding that pitch, Milner told himself, would be a task for the offseason.
He found it during that game of catch, with advice from an unlikely source: a pitcher drafted in June who throws with a standard delivery.
"His name is Parker Mushinski, drafted last year by Houston out of Texas Tech," Milner said. "He's a big spike curveball guy. He was like, 'This is what I do, I cock my wrist.' 'OK. I'll try it.' So I just use his grip and everything. Every time I throw a breaking ball, I'm throwing that one."
Lefthanded hitters batted .159 against Milner last season, while righthanders hit .377 with a 1.054 OPS. He threw almost exclusively fastballs to righthanders, having zero confidence that his curveball had a chance.
Milner came to camp having found that confidence. He has thrown his curveball to lefthanders and righthanders, inducing whiffs from both.
Milner's spot on the Opening Day roster is not a lock. The Phillies will carry eight relievers, and there is likely room for one lefthander in addition to Adam Morgan. Milner is competing with Zac Curtis and Fernando Abad, who would need to be added to the 40-man roster. Milner, with an improved curveball, has a shot.
"I just want to keep getting the opportunities to prove that I can get righties out and go out there for a whole inning," Milner said.
Nola looks good
Aaron Nola allowed just one base runner in four innings, as he struck out five batters in a 2-1 win over Boston's split squad. Nola continued to work on his change-up, using it to whiff Andrew Benintendi, one of the few Red Sox regulars to play.
"Nola was pretty special today," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think anyone would argue with his breaking-ball location. What stood out most to me and what was most impressive is how he adds and subtracts to his fastball. You'll see some 88 [mph] flash up there, and then you'll also see him reach back at the right time for 94. Very reminiscent of the best pitchers in baseball."