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July 26, 2013 at 9:07 AM

Mental game making the difference for Garin Cecchini

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- By the time Garin Cecchini stepped to the plate for the last time Tuesday night, it had been a long day.

He had seen a combined 15 pitches in his first four at-bats for the Portland Sea Dogs at a damp New Britain Stadium, and mixed in with a strikeout and a pair of groundouts was his lone hit — a bloop to left field that barely fell in fair territory.

But Cecchini’s day wasn’t quite over. After taking southpaw Jose Gonzalez’s first offering high and away for a ball, Cecchini, a left-handed batter, lined a fastball to center to bring shortstop Heiker Meneses in from third with an important insurance run.

The base knock proved to be an important one not only for the Sea Dogs, who scored what became the winning run on the hit, but for Cecchini himself, who walked away with something more tangible after having what he considered successful at-bats earlier in the night.

“It did feel good,” said Cecchini, who is typically a third baseman but handled designated hitting duties that night. “That’s a good sign of where I have come from since I was in Lowell [in 2011]. Maybe that last, fifth at-bat when I was in Lowell, I would have just given it away because I was 1 for 4 already and I didn’t want to be 1 for 4.

“But instead, I helped my team out. They got on base for me, I hit a line drive up the middle and we got a run, which was a big, key run. … That was a mental at-bat right there. Against a tough lefty, who was throwing pretty decent coming against his body. He threw one away, then came in.”

That single, Cecchini said, is a perfect example of what has helped him make strides during a breakout 2013 campaign: a revamped and refocused mental approach to the game.

Much like baseball legend Yogi Berra — “90 percent of the game is half mental,” the old Yogi-ism goes — Cecchini has become a big believer in the importance of what goes on between the ears.

“It’s really… jumpstarted me,” Cecchini said. “Baseball is so mental — learning from the past, but not dwelling on it — and really living in the present, pitch by pitch, at-bat by at-bat.”

Cecchini spent the offseason making weekly correspondences with Bob Tewksbury, a former big league pitcher who has worked as the organization’s mental skills coach for most of the last decade.

Throughout the winter months, and then into spring training, Cecchini journaled after almost every workout, noting not only the physical — how he performed, how pitchers attacked him — but also his thought processes. How did he feel during a given at-bat? Was he breathing while in the batting cage? Did a hurler pitch him like he expected?

Based on those notes, Cecchini was able to find a mental state that worked best for him — what was going through his mind during a successful at-bat or game. On days when he does struggle, he can call on those experiences and return to the baseline, of sorts, to reset.

“If I ground out four times to the second baseman — God forbid — like I did a week ago where I kept rolling over pitches in, I was getting frustrated,” Cecchini said. “I was going back to my old ways. I said, ‘Let’s take a deep breathe.’ I did what Tewks taught me, to take a deep breath.”

The difference between his mindset now and his mindset in seasons past, Cecchini said, is huge.

“Worried about the future... anxious,” Cecchini said of his psyche in previous years. “I wouldn’t say fearful, but worried too much about what happened yesterday instead of learning from it and moving on. I wasn’t bad — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn — but I could’ve been a lot better.”

Indeed, Cecchini is no stranger to success. The Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round and signed him to a $1.3 million bonus out of high school in 2010, even after he missed his senior season due to injury, and he has hardly stopped hitting since. He owns a career .319/.416/.475 slash line in parts of three professional seasons and earned all-star honors in his respective league in each of those years.

And yet, he seems to have taken it to another level in 2013. Cecchini tore up Carolina League pitching with High A Salem for two and a half months before being promoted to Double-A in mid-June.

In 94 games across the two levels this season, Cecchini is hitting .345 with a .975 OPS. His next walk will match his total from all of 2012 (61), and with a .454 on-base percentage, he's getting on at a clip better than nearly every other minor leaguer.

“One thing that stands out is the strike-zone management that he has,” said Portland manager Kevin Boles. “His splits against lefties and righties are very impressive. He manages his ABs, he has a pretty advanced knowledge of the strike zone, and we’ve seen some athleticism from him at third. He’s definitely a fun-looking guy to watch.”

Others have taken note, too. Cecchini is third in the SoxProspect.com rankings, up from seventh to start the season, and Baseball America has him at No. 41 among all prospects in its mid-season list. He also played with some of the game’s top minor leaguers in the Futures Game at Citi Field earlier this month.

Cecchini went as far as saying the biggest factor in that jump — from a decent prospect who had only reached Low A to one of the best hitters in the minors — is the work he put in and skills he learned from Tewksbury in the offseason.

“By all means, I haven’t learned everything about baseball. I’m still in Double-A,” Cecchini said with a slight laugh. “But that is what has helped me.

“This game is so mental, it’s unbelievable. It’s stupid how mental it is.”

Photo credit: Garin Cecchini by Kelly O’Connor.

Tim Healey is a staff writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.