"I won a big playoff game for my team and didn't really look at my ERA, but rather at how I finished up," boasted Downs, who struck out eight and walked three en route to a postseason victory against Vancouver on Sep. 7. "You know, last season I had a little trouble with walks at times. As the year progressed, I got better and better."
Downs went 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA in his last six starts, including the playoff victory over the Canadians in the Northwest League Championship Series. That was a steady turnaround from his first nine outings, in which Downs' ERA was 6.50. He admits his fastball, which consistently registers around 90 mph, caused the bulk of his control problems last year.
"I don't know why," said Downs, "but over the course of the season, I just had a tougher time spotting it than I did my breaking ball. I also pitched better on the road for whatever reason. When I went back and looked at my home and away stats, that's when I noticed it. I really don't have an explanation for it."
Downs also showed better control away from Memorial Stadium, the Hawks' home field. In eight away starts, Downs struck out 42 and walked 17; at home, he fanned only 19 while walking 18.
Asked what his work load has consisted of this spring, Downs replied, "Right now we're just trying to stay in shape and get our arms ready for the long haul."
He admitted to slightly altering his approach on the mound this past offseason.
"I told myself to keep throwing the ball around the knees and to just throw strikes," Downs said. "I worked on throwing the ball more consistently down the plate instead of just inside and outside on the corners. Now that Spring Training is here, I'm able to go back inside and work on my corner pitches again."
One thing Downs struggled with last season was the early innings. He allowed 10 first inning runs, which translated to a 6.92 ERA.
"I don't know if it was early inning jitters or what," Downs said. "I don't want to say that it was. I would just have to settle down and find a rhythm. It was all about getting into a groove."
Downs, drafted out of high school in Lantana, Fla., grew up idolizing Greg Maddux and says he learned a lot from watching the future Hall of Famer pitch as a youngster.
"When I was growing up," reminisces Downs, "I liked the Atlanta Braves and loved watching Maddux and (Tom) Glavine pitch. I never threw hard, but I could always hit my spots, and I always had good off-speed stuff and movement on my pitches. After watching Maddux pitch, I know he's the kind of guy that throws everything, no matter if he's ahead in the count or behind. I don't throw all that hard, either, so I always grew up relating to those guys."
As Downs presumably gets set to enter his first year in one of the full-season Class-A levels, he remains determined not to let the hard times stand in his way.
"Sure, I had some hard times last year," said Downs, "but you just learn to finish up strong. That's going to push me hard into this season. I ended last year on a high note and went into this past offseason working hard and trying to feed off the late season success. I've carried that over into my first few bullpen sessions this spring and I'm feeling a lot better now than I did at certain times last year.
"All I know is I've been throwing the ball 10 times better this spring. I've got my control back and I'm ready to go."