Mind over matter.
For Riverview High graduate Anthony Ferrera, that might be the key to finally achieving his dream of pitching in the major leagues.
Talent, and getting hitters out, has not been a major issue for the left-handed Ferrera, now 24 and entering his seventh season of minor league ball.
His career numbers, 32-22 with an ERA of 4.08, along with all-star appearances in A and AA ball, suggest it's something beyond physical ability keeping him from making the next step.
He's had games where he throws one-hit ball for seven innings with 10 strikeouts. However, the next outing would be less successful, giving up hits and runs at too frequent a clip.
Ferrera longs to harness the mental energy of those good performances.
He said until this past season he didn't completely buy into the mental aspect of pitching. If he had a poor outing he worked harder, ran more, threw more, whatever it took to improve.
Only in 2013 did it register that mental confidence goes hand in hand with physical prowess.
"Once you get to the upper levels, the ability is there for 99 percent of the guys," Ferrera said shortly before porting to the Cardinals camp March 6. "It's the mental adjustment that separates guys and helps them reach their full potential. Hitters can sense your body language. If you appear to be a little negative, dropping your head down, looking around and not being real focused, they go in attack mode.
"It's like blood in the water."
Ferrera said the Cardinals have helped him stress mental discipline. He noted former Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa frequently mentioned that asset as a key for advancement.
But it's much easier said than done.
"A lot of things go through my mind when I'm on the mound," Ferrera said, laughing, knowing it's not always positive.
"My thought process isn't defensive, but I'll be thinking, 'I can't walk this guy,' or 'I can't let this guy get on.' I have to re-channel that to be, 'I know I can get this guy.' "
A seventh round pick in the June 2008 amateur draft, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Ferrera is still on the Cardinals radar despite his slow climb through their pitching-rich organization. Mike Shildt, the Cardinals spring training coordinator, managed Ferrera in rookie ball and last year in AA ball in Missouri in the Texas League. He said Ferrera can be hard on himself when he fails, but he has the ability to pitch in the majors.
They like his determined makeup as well his effective curveball and changeup.
This past fall he was one of only four pitchers the team sent to the prestigious Arizona Fall League for advanced prospects.
"That's not an assignment that's given out lightly," Shildt said. "Anthony's got a lot to like.
"We're working with him to focus properly and channel his energy and have his thoughts be consistent. He just needs to be comfortable and trust what he's doing. You're never going to be at your best every outing, but we like to say you need to be at your better so we know what we're getting out of you at higher levels."
The Arizona assignment also got Ferrera to realize he's not far away from wearing a big league uniform.
"That was a huge honor," Ferrera said. "A lot of those guys who were there last year (2012) played in the big leagues this year and in the (2013) World Series, so you see what it takes to get there."
He mentioned Cardinals pitchers Kevin Seigrist, Carlos Martinez, Michael Blazek, Keith Butler and Trevor Rosenthal, many of whom were key contributors to the Cardinals National League championship last season.
Ferrera's always loved the physical preparation for a season, building up his arm strength and throwing. As he prepares for spring training in Jupiter, in addition to throwing and working out this offseason he's read books recommended by the Cardinals to engage mentally.
It always comes back to the mind games.
"We're hard-wired to think a certain way, but you can change that," he said. "My dad pushed me to be the best that I could be and I would get upset with myself if I didn't do well in a pressure situation. But you can change that from stop worrying about failing and thinking about doing something positive. I've never been in a better place mentally and can't wait to get to camp.
"My only goal this year is to be a major league pitcher. In the past, I would've said I want to get moved up another level or be a AA all-star. But I think that was selling myself short. I want to be a big leaguer, and that's the mental change because physically I know I can pitch up there."
The affable Ferrera has evolved from a gangly high school kid unsure about pro ball to a seasoned veteran aware of the pitfalls and long odds in making the major leagues.
However, he said he wouldn't change a thing given the people he's met and friendships he's made.
"I didn't think I'd be in the minors six years later, but I was uneducated about the whole process and all the things about the draft and moving up that goes on once you get into pro ball," Ferrera said. "I was a young, naive kid. But I wouldn't trade it for the world because of the relationships I've made and the things I've learned about myself.
"It's been a great experience, and it isn't going to end any time soon. I'll make my opportunity."
Joel Poiley can be reached at [email protected]