Former Tulane pitcher Zeid flourishing as OKC’s closer

Josh Zeid said he didn’t see this season shaping up the way it has for him, even though his preparation was like nothing before.

First of all, this is the first season in Class AAA for Zeid, a former Tulane pitcher now with the Oklahoma City RedHawks, and that step up in competition alone can be difficult. Second, Zeid didn’t exactly burn up AA at Corpus Christi last season, finishing with a 5.59 earned-run average.

However, just past the midway point of this season, he is flourishing in the all-important closer role as he and the RedHawks get set today for their final game in New Orleans of 2013.

“It’s been a pretty good season,” said Zeid, who is 4-0 with a 2.80 ERA and nine saves this season. “The (parent Houston) Astros and the coaching staff have given me a lot of opportunity to go out there and do well.”

Zeid received a big opportunity his last time in New Orleans with the RedHawks. In a game on June 19, the second in the four-game series, Oklahoma City was cruising with a 3-0 led in the bottom of the ninth inning. However, Zephyrs catcher Kyle Skipworth, who has hitting .175, launched a walk-off grand slam into the swimming pool behind the right-field fence off closer Jose Valdez.

Zeid then became the closer, and he’s taken off in that role. In his past seven games since the move, he has pitched seven innings, allowed four hits and no runs, has struck out eight and walked one.

He has not allowed a run since the June 18 series opener against the Z’s – eight appearances ago – when he was touched for three hits and a run in one inning, even though he struck out two. That appearance has played a part in his recent success, he said.

“You always go into a game, you want to be focused, you want to have your utmost attention to every detail, but it’s hard to do that every pitch,” he said. “And, that game, they got a double and then a single, so they scored really quickly.

“And, now I’m trying from the get-go, from the first pitch of the inning, to be as focused and as aggressive as possible and not let any slip-ups happen. I’m going to get scored on, but if I go out there with the mindset that I’m aggressive with every pitch, I think that’s when success starts happening a little more often.”

RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco said that in Zeid’s past four or five saves, he has been outstanding. The organization knew Zeid had that kind of potential, DeFrancesco said, and just wanted to take the time to develop him.

“His velocity is up there,” DeFrancesco said. “He throws 95, 97 (mph fastball), has a good, hard slider, comes at you very aggressive. One thing for Josh, he’s become a strike thrower.”

DeFrancesco made sure to get him work starting early on, but he kept him out of pressure situations, he said.

“We let him get his feet wet, let him start understanding AAA hitters, what it’s like to pitch at this level,” DeFrancesco said. “He got his confidence going, stepped into the closer’s role and has converted every opportunity.

“He’s throwing the ball well, good breaking ball, pitching with confidence. We’re all happy with the way Josh progressed this season.”

Zeid, 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, said confidence is the key, and that – and his increased focus – came about this past offseason. He and the former Stephanie Tiedemann, a doctor of neuropsychology and former Vanderbilt student, married in January.

They moved to Houston, where Zeid was able to get invaluable instruction working with Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail and bullpen catcher Javier Bracamonte. Those sessions sharpened the command on his pitches, Zeid said, and he started pitching with attitude.

“Just having them watch me, talk to me, a whole lot of confidence came from that,” said Zeid, who was drafted in the 10th round in 2009 by the Philadelphia Phillies and was traded to Houston in 201l. “They made me feel like I belong, whether it’s in the big leagues or Triple-A or Double-A. They made me feel like I was a pitcher again. When someone believes in you, and you believe in yourself, that goes a long way.”

It certainly has this season, although DeFrancesco said Zeid was erratic with his pitches early on. However, in 27 of 34 appearances, he has not given up a run, and in five other appearances, he has allowed just one. Zeid has had just two bad outings, in which he gave up three runs each time – on May 18 at Sacramento and on June 9 at Omaha.

Zeid said with this being his first season in AAA, he’s not thinking about a call-up to the Astros, despite his impressive numbers, but only in gaining experience and continued improvement.

“To be honest, I’m very thankful to be in Triple-A with the year I had last year,” he said. “It was a very distinct possibility that I’d be back in Double-A.”

For right now, he relishes his new role as closer, which he said is quite different from other relief roles.

“You know that the game could be over at any point,” he said. “Any base-runner could be the last one that crosses home plate.

“You have to slow everything down. I let the game speed up on me in the past, and I’ve done that at times this year. You start throwing three, four pitches when you’ve just thought about one.

“You’ve just got to breathe and focus and have a game plan with everything you do.”

DeFrancesco wouldn’t say whether it was the Astros’ plan to call up Zeid, but he seemed eager to see him pitching in Houston, implying that he is ready.

“Hopefully, at some time this year, he’ll get an opportunity to pitch up in Houston and go up there and see if he can compete,” said DeFrancesco, who was the Astros’ interim manager late last season. “If you are going to take a guy, now’s the time to take him. He’s pitching with so much confidence, he wants to pitch, he’s very durable. He can go out back-to-back days, three out of four days.

“He’s locked in, he’s feeling it, he’s on his way.”