CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It really is 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to home plate.
Every pitcher knows this, but sometimes young pitchers need a reminder. So following batting practice before the first game of every road series late last season, closer Jonathan Papelbon walked the rookie relievers to the mound to give them a look at what they will see if they pitch.
"That way, it's not your first time on the mound the first time you come into the game," left-hander Jake Diekman said on Monday at Bright House Field. "The biggest thing was going into ballparks you've never been in before. Getting thrown in that way, it's a completely different atmosphere. Like at home, I was so comfortable. But on the road, sometimes it's deceptive. Sometimes it seems farther than it is."
Diekman went 1-1 with a 3.95 ERA in 32 appearances as a rookie last season, but said he felt more comfortable the more he pitched and the more ballparks he experienced. Diekman looked brilliant at times, averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, while looking wild at others, averaging 6.6 walks per nine innings. The Phils love his potential, but manager Charlie Manuel put it best last week when he said if Diekman just learns how to throw the ball over the plate, they will have something good.
Diekman has stiff competition for a job. Papelbon, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo and Chad Durbin are locks, which leaves a good group of talented pitchers fighting for three spots. Diekman's top competition figures to be left-handers Jeremy Horst and Raul Valdes, because the Phillies need at least a second left-hander in the bullpen. But a group of talented right-handers will make things interesting.
"I think it'll be fun, because we all really, really know each other, but secretly we're all really competitive," Diekman said. "We're cordial and nice to each other, but I think we all know what's on the line."
For Diekman to make the team, he needs to throw strikes. His 6.6 walks per nine innings were more than double the league's average (3.05 walks per nine innings). Diekman needs to do much better. He knows it.
"I feel like that's the biggest thing for me," Diekman said.
Diekman spends his offseasons in Nebraska, so fortunately he had time to work on his craft.
"On Saturdays, I don't know what you're doing if you're not watching the Husker game," he said. "During the week, there's nothing to do."
So Diekman went to an indoor training facility in his hometown and started to throw. And because this was the first offseason he did not play winter ball or throw in instructional league, Diekman started his work earlier than normal. He spent a lot of that time improving his mechanics.
"I finally realized I've only been doing this for three-and-a-half years," Diekman said, referring to his sidearm delivery. "I changed in '09. I'm like, 'OK, until I was 22, I pitched one way. I better catch up to the reps I took for that.' So I fine-tuned my line to home plate. I guess that was the biggest thing. I can see [the difference] from the offseason. My mechanics are so much more consistent now than when I left."
That would make pitching coach Rich Dubee very happy if it's true. But even then, Diekman will have to pitch well in camp to make the team.
"I had ups and downs, but at the end of the year, it started to be on an even keel," Diekman said. "That's the way I took it into the offseason, just take the last month you were up here."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.