In the midst of struggles during his first season in professional baseball, Eric Jokisch kept a cool head and an open mind. For the first time, the southpaw was losing command of his pitches.
Jokisch has excelled on the mound since then, but not without adjustments to his game. The 22-year-old native of Virginia, Ill. learned what kind of pitcher he needed to be.
"I don't have overpowering stuff," Jokisch said. "But I'm starting to hit my spots, get strikes, force ground balls, and learning how to pitch professional baseball."
As a first-year pitcher with the Cubs' short-season affiliate, the Boise Hawks, Jokisch struggled. Opposing batters posted a .329 average, while he allowed 27 earned runs in 35.1 innings. He walked 23 batters, compared to just 28 strikeouts.
Jokisch continuously was falling behind each batter as he struggled to work the strike zone early in each count. That problem was noticed by first-year pitching coach Jeff Fassero, who instructed Jokisch to change his approach on the mound.
"It really comes down to me attacking the strike zone down in the zone, getting ahead of batters and getting ground balls outs," said Jokisch. "In college, I tried to pitch around batters and got behind, not pitching in the strike zone. The mentality of pitching is the main thing I changed."
Jokisch felt comfortable with all of Fassero's teachings, in part the 15-year major-league veteran made a career off similar techniques to what he was teaching Jokisch.
"I trusted everything he said because he had a great big-league career," Jokisch said of Fassero. "He as a lefty that was crafty, not overpowering -- just like me."
Jokisch has seen consistent success since his first season. He finished 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA in Peoria during the 2011 season, with Fassero moving up as the Chiefs pitching coach. This season, with the Daytona Cubs, Jokisch has posted a 2.90 ERA and 48 strikeouts to just 14 walks. He has continued to learn from Marty Mason, Daytona's pitching coach.
Jokisch was named the Florida State League Player and Pitcher of the week for May 7-13 for posting two wins and allowing no earned runs over 13 innings of work. Though Jokisch did retire 16 batters on strikes, his ability to attack the strike zone forced many ground-ball outs, and his Cubs teammates played strong defense.
"It feels pretty good," Jokisch said. "I have to give a lot of credit to the players, they had a lot of nice plays to save some runs for me."
When Jokisch eyes the strike zone, he sees a familiar face behind the catcher's mask. Former Northwestern teammate Chad Noble first caught for Jokisch in 2008, and the two have been teammates for five straight seasons, playing on three different professional teams together.
"It's nice to know that I trust him with what he calls, and I can worry about executing my pitches rather than calling the game myself," said Jokisch. "I attribute a lot of the success I've had to him being behind the plate."
Jokisch and Noble have built on-field chemistry through their off-the-field friendship. The two were roommates at Northwestern, and currently live together in Daytona, driving to the ballpark each day.
"We're really good friends, so obviously, we'll be great friends for the rest of our lives," Jokisch said. "I hope we can go through the system together and continue to play together as long as possible."
Jokisch is learning what kind of a pitcher he is, what he can become. The lefty is learning his craft and working to improve every day.
"I've had my ups and downs," he said. "I'm starting to learn how to pitch and hopefully keep moving up, learning, till I can have that major-league career."