Francis psyched for fresh start with Royals
Canadian left-hander reunited with former Rockies pitching coach Bob McClure
Jeff Francis hasn't forgotten toeing the rubber on a cold and rainy night in August 2004 at Sky Sox Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Canadian left-hander believes the New Orleans Zephyrs chased him from the Pacific Coast League game in the third inning, Francis's final start for the Sky Sox before breaking into the major leagues with the Colorado Rockies.
"It was a terrifically horrendous start," Francis recalled in a recent interview. "I came out of the game and sat next to him, and he said some stuff to me about not letting outings like that get to you."
Francis is referring to former Colorado Springs pitching coach Bob McClure, who shared lessons learned from his 19-year pitching career in the majors with Francis until joining the Kansas City Royals in the same capacity following the 2005 season.
McClure wasn't around in 2007 when Francis won 17 games for the Rockies and led the team to the World Series, going a combined 2-0 in the National League Division and Championship Series.
But they will be reunited this season after Francis, a free agent, signed a one-year contract with the Royals worth $2 million US. McClure will attempt to get the Vancouver hurler back on track after a pair of unproductive and injury-riddled seasons in 2008 and 2009.
"A lot of guys had told me what a good coach he was and what you could glean from him just sitting around him watching baseball — talking the game, learning how to make adjustments as a pitcher and how to approach certain types of hitters," said Francis, Baseball America's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2004.
"He's just a guy that loves baseball, pitched a long time in the major leagues and I think, from experience, knows really well how to carry yourself on the mound. Sometimes it just takes a fresh set of eyes to point something out and help you in the right direction. It should be fun to work with him again."
The feeling is mutual as McClure raved about Francis in an interview with the Kansas City Star earlier this month.
"He's a character guy, No. 1, and he's had some success at the highest level, including playoff experience," McClure said. "He has very good command, especially at the bottom of the strike zone, and a real good feel for pitching."
Confidence is what McClure is best known for instilling in Francis, who sports a 55-50 mark and 4.77 earned-run average over six major-league seasons.
It was tested last season when the 30-year-old Francis went 4-10 with a 5.00 ERA in 19 starts after missing the first six weeks recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in the shoulder joint that cost Francis the entire '09 campaign.
"It's a big deal," Francis said of taking confidence to the mound. "Your failures always have to teach you something and you can't step on the field without confidence. You have to step out there with the same attitude that you're better than the guy you're facing.
"That's an attitude I've taken and it has served me pretty well. It certainly stuck with me [in 2004] because I just had this horrible start and you start questioning yourself. Bob told me right away not to let [such thoughts] come into your head."
Colorado and Kansas City have faced each other often in spring training and interleague play since McClure's departure from the Rockies, so Francis would meet up with his old pitching coach on the field prior to games and chat, but not about anything specific to pitching.
That is about to change.
Francis must report to spring training, along with the Royals' other pitchers and catchers, by Feb. 15 in Surprise, Ariz. He could be Kansas City's opening-day starter against the visiting Los Angeles Angels on March 31.
With ace Zack Greinke traded to Milwaukee over the winter, the Royals' projected starters include non-household names such as Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Sean O'Sullivan and newcomer Vin Mazzaro.
In the dark
Francis admitted to knowing very little about the American League and the teams he would be facing this season after spending his entire major-league career in the National League.
"In his playing career, Bob [McClure] switched leagues [three] times and he mentioned to me that a lot of times unfamiliarity favours the pitcher," Francis said. "Hopefully, I can use that to my advantage. There's no question having that [designated hitter] in the lineup [instead of a pitcher in the NL] makes a difference."
Besides McClure, Royals catcher Jason Kendall will help Francis get quickly comfortable in his new surrounding. Like McClure, the 36-year-old backstop has switched leagues three times, returning to the AL last season with the Royals. He played two-plus seasons with Oakland from 2005 to 2007.
"I've never met a pitcher who didn't like throwing to him," said Francis. "The guy goes out and catches 150 games a year [151 in 2008, 118 last year] so there's no question about his durability and his commitment to his pitchers."
Francis went on the disabled list last August with a "very sore" throwing shoulder, but returned in mid-September and finished the season healthy. He said there hasn't been any soreness or setbacks during the off-season.
"I'm happy where I am," said Francis, adding he would continue building arm strength and sharpening his skills leading into spring training. "I've done all I can to prepare, so it's just a matter of going on the field and letting things take care of themselves."
Francis, who called 2011 a sink or swim year for himself, is excited to pitch for a Royals outfit that has turned in seven consecutive losing seasons, but boasts some talented youngsters and the best farm system in the game, according to Baseball America.
"I've had three below-average years," he said, "and I've got this opportunity to go out and [start], be healthy. I expect to be myself. I expect to go out there and be an effective pitcher and win some games for the Kansas City Royals.
"If I don't, there might be some other options out there, who knows? I'm certainly not planning for that."