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First pitch strikes key to starters success

CHICAGO -- If there was one thing new pitching coach Randy St. Claire wanted to establish with Marlins starters this season it was to have them "attack the strike zone more." Although the season might not be very old, it seems St. Claire has gotten his message across.

Entering Tuesday night's game at Wrigley, Marlins starters have not allowed more than three runs in each of their last nine starts, going 4-2 with a 3.07 ERA. If there's a reason for the success, according to St. Claire, it's the fact his guys are getting ahead in the strike zone. A look inside the numbers, supports St. Claire's philosophy.

This season, four of the Marlins five starters have thrown first pitch strikes at least at a 60 percent clip. Last season, only Josh Johnson (63) and Ricky Nolasco (61) were over 60. This season, Chris Volstad (60 percent) and Anibal Sanchez (67) have joined Johnson (62) and Nolasco (61). Nate Robertson, the Marlins' only left-hander in the starting rotation, is at 57 percent.

"They've been all doing a pretty good job getting ahead of the hitters as a group," St. Claire said. "To me, that's a key to me to be able to go deep into games. When you're ahead of hitters, they have to put the ball in play and are more aggressive with the strike zone because they have to be. You use less pitches. When your behind in the count, you're using 5-6 pitches an at-bat instead of less than three. If you're ahead of hitters you use less pitches, so you go deeper into the game."

That's been exactly the case. Last season, Marlins starters averaged 5.6 innings and 92 pitches a start. This season, they are averaging six innings and 98 pitches. In turn, they're quality starts are up from 46 percent a year ago to 59 percent (19 in 32 games) this season. Volstad and Sanchez are the two biggest examples. Volstad averaged 5.5 innings and 89 pitches per start last year and is now up to 6.6 innings and 96 pitchers per start this season. Sanchez went up from 5.4 innings and 92 pitchers to 5.9 innings and 96 per start this season.

VOLSTAD BACK IN A GROOVE... Even though his numbers are popping off the page, Volstad (3-2, 4.12 ERA) is obviously a much improved pitcher this season. Take out his one bad start in Colorado on April 25 (7 runs in 4 1/3 innings), and Volstad’s record is 3-1 with a 2.83 ERA.

The 23-year old's WHIP has dropped from 1.434 to 1.068 and opponents, who hit .278 against him last year with 29 home runs, are hitting .207 against him this season with only four homers.

"I've been using all my pitches, I think that's the biggest thing," Volstad said. "Adding that slider has been big for me. It's something else for that hitter to be thinking about... another big difference is I've just decided I just have to attack the hitters and not worry about making my stuff too nasty, hitting corners, just go right after them and let my stuff work."

Volstad said he's pumped about making his 50th career start Wednesday at Wrigley. He 0-0 with a 2.81 ERA against the Cubs all-time and has an ERA of 2.77 in two previous starts in Chicago.

"I love this place. This is baseball. Wrigley Field, it's awesome," Volstad said. "I like the atmosphere here. Hopefully, it warms up for the day game tomorrow."

The only problem with Wrigley for Volstad? Walking around the innards of the stadium. At 6-8, 232 pounds, he often has to watch his head ducking under doorways and hallways.

"I can't get too excited in the dugout either," Volstad said. "If I jump up on a hard hit ball, I'll crush my head on the [dugout overhang]. It happened to me at Fenway. These parks are pretty similar. Small clubhouse, small walkways, small overhangs. I guess pitchers weren't 6-8 back then."

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