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Minor League notebook

Fife delivering after changes

Portland starter has been stopper

WILL MIDDLEBROOKS Future appears bright WILL MIDDLEBROOKS
Future appears bright
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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MANCHESTER, N.H. - Stephen Fife didn’t like what he saw when watching film last year from a start with Double A Portland. He sat with pitching coach Bob Kipper and picked apart his delivery. His hips were slow. His body was not fully extended.

So Fife changed it. He worked with his coaches and restored elements that worked while he was at the University of Utah when he delivered pitches from what he described as an “unconventional’’ approach.

Fiddling with mechanics may make some cringe, but Fife, 24, said the small changes have made an impact this season. The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound righthander owns a team-best 10-3 record and has a 3.59 ERA along with 61 strikeouts in 16 games. His performance earned him a second consecutive spot in the Eastern League All-Star Game.

“I kind of went back to more of what I did in college and created a little bit more torque and that gave me some more tilt in the baseball and I’m actually better this year, sharper and more consistent,’’ Fife said before Wednesday’s All-Star Game. “That’s probably the biggest thing. I learned a lot last year about how to actually pitch and making enough mechanical adjustments and how to continue refining.’’

Most of the adjustments revolved around the first step into his delivery. Instead of stepping back, Fife used a quick front step that was followed by a rushed delivery. Fife’s hurried approach bothered some, but it didn’t stop the Red Sox from drafting him in the third round in 2008. It wasn’t long before he began working with coaches to develop a more methodical approach. But along the way, Fife had to find the right balance between his comfort and a fundamentally sound motion.

Last season, Fife was 8-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 26 starts. Fife said he always looks for ways to improve, but after a game last year he consulted with Kipper and decided he needed to do more.

“I wasn’t too happy with my stuff,’’ Fife said. “I had decent success, but I felt like my curveball got a little sloppy and my fastball wasn’t quite there. It was time to look in the mirror.

“They tell you it’s your career and if you want to make it, you’re your best pitching coach. It was one of those things where I felt like I needed to go back to what I did to get drafted and get in this situation and I felt pretty good about making that adjustment.’’

With the approval of his coaches, Fife began tinkering with his delivery. He said it took most of spring training and a couple of adjustments early in the season before he developed a delivery that worked for him.

Fife said it can be easy to overanalyze a delivery.

“It’s definitely one of those things everyone is worried about in terms of me looking at too much film or trying to do too much, but that’s who I am, I like to look at things and try and make adjustments and improve things,’’ Fife said. “We’re past that point now, and I think we feel pretty good with what we’ve come up with.’’

New Hampshire Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano, who managed Fife and the Eastern Division All-Stars this week, said one thing has been constant with Fife.

“The one thing I like about Stephen is when he gets on the mound, he’s a competitor,’’ Fasano said. “He has good poise and doesn’t really get rattled. We always talk about that on the development side of what kind of composure does he have.

“We’ve seen him with good stuff and we’ve seen him with bad stuff, but in both of those games he gave his team an opportunity to win and that’s a very enduring quality to have as a player.’’

In the All-Star Game, Fife pitched two-thirds of the ninth (both strikeouts) in the 8-3 loss.

Fife tries not to worry about what’s going on in the majors, but he knows how close he is to the next level. If he needed a reminder, he just thinks about the players who played in the EL All-Star Game last year, who are now in the majors.

“You can have somebody tell you you’re close, but you get an experience like this and you really do realize that you are that close to a mishap, or promotion, or trade, or whatever it happens to be. It’s on the horizon,’’ Fife said. “It’s a kick in the butt to keep going and keep trying and hopefully give yourself an opportunity.’’

Expanding man At Texas A&M, righthander Alex Wilson relied on his fastball and slider to silence opponents. But Wilson, now with Portland, realized quickly he would need to expand his repertoire if he wanted to keep getting hitters out.

Last year, he added a changeup and he said it wasn’t very successful. But this season, Wilson isn’t afraid to lean on his changeup.

“It’s opened up a whole new door for my game,’’ said the 6-foot, 225-pound Wilson. “It’s not only a trial pitch, but it’s a legitimate pitch for me and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turning out. It’s a weapon for me. I don’t feel uncomfortable throwing it and I don’t feel like it’s forced.’’

Wilson posted a 5.31 ERA and a 6-6 record between Salem and Portland last season. This year, he has a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts (8-4), all with Portland. He also earned a spot on the EL All-Star team.

Stars in his eyes Portland third baseman Will Middlebrooks called his experience in the Futures Game Sunday in Phoenix one of the best moments of his life. He returned to participate in the EL All-Star Game.

Middlebrooks was 1 for 2 in the USA’s 6-4 win against the World, which included Portland outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang (Taiwan).

Having the chance to be around big league players and managers made the experience even more special for Middlebrooks.

“The biggest thing I took from it was watching those guys and learning how to be a professional,’’ he said. “I’m trying to get to where they are.’’

Middlebrooks (.316, 10 HRs, 45 RBIs) returned to Portland last night and hit a two-run homer in a 5-4 loss to New Britain

“He’s a guy that we’re envious of when you see a third baseman who is big, strong, athletic, and has a good arm,’’ Fasano said. “He’s a prototypical third baseman that we think can be in the big leagues and he’s only going to grow and get stronger.

“[He’s] going to be a pretty good big league player, if not with Boston, with somebody.’’

Hassan shining Portland outfielder Alex Hassan also earned an All-Star berth and went 2 for 4. He is batting .311 in 86 games. His average is second on the team to Chiang’s .318. Hassan, a Milton native, has 45 RBIs and an OPS of .907 in his first season with Portland.

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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