HOUSTON (AP) — Josh James slowly walks slightly off the mound, turns around and fixes his gaze on the foul pole in right field.
A few seconds pass before the hard-throwing Houston Astros reliever returns to the rubber and delivers his next pitch.
It’s a scene James repeats again and again, often when he gets behind in the count. But the 26-year-old right-hander also relies on the routine in times he needs to gather himself to finish off a batter with a strikeout.
The tactic is something James learned from working with Dr. Jesse Michel, a sports psychologist who since 2017 has been the mental skills coordinator for the Astros.
James is in his first full season in the majors after making his debut in 2018. The 34th-round pick had felt something was missing when he toiled in the minors before meeting Michel during spring training in 2017.
“If it wasn’t for him I think I’d still have gotten here, but I don’t know if I’d be able to be as good as I am or have the ceiling that I can have without him helping me,” James said this week as Houston prepared to play Washington in the World Series. “I owe a lot to him.”
After that first interaction in a group setting, James began meeting privately with Michel. Those sessions were simply to let them get to know each other and build a mutual trust before they began working on things James could use in games.
But this was all new to him. Working on his mind the way he’d always worked on his body as an athlete wasn’t something that came easily for James.
“At first it was still really difficult to actually put into use,” he said. “But he would always check on me.”
Slowly the lessons he was learning started to feel natural and James began to see results. By the next spring, he was all in.
And when Michel showed James and a group of Astros minor leaguers a video of big league star Evan Longoria and pointed out his techniques for focusing on the field, it stuck with him.
“We watched his cues of what he’d do with his batting gloves and how he’d stare at the foul pole and it kind of helped him center himself,” James said. “And that’s something that I gravitated to. That’s simple. That’s easy and it works for the short term.”
That season James made a remarkable jump, opening the season in Double-A and ending it with a spot on Houston’s roster for the playoffs, despite not being called up until Sept. 1.
As he dealt with the jump from the minors to the majors, James relied on Michel’s teachings when things got tough and he needed to calm down.
“The game in my opinion is 90 percent mental and I think a lot of people neglect the mental part of the game … and this is something that has helped me tremendously,” James said. “Especially in the bigger games in the playoffs. It’s huge because it’s so easy for the game to speed up on you and it’s easy for the big moments to kind of catch up to you.”
James went 5-1 with a 4.70 ERA in 49 games this season despite missing more than a month with shoulder soreness. He’s already found himself in bigger games this postseason.
He made two appearances against Tampa Bay in the AL Division Series without allowing a run, then went 1-0 with a 4.91 ERA and seven strikeouts in four outings against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
Manager AJ Hinch raved about how James has grown and matured in the short time he’s been in the majors. Having a wipeout fastball helps, too.
“The one constant has been punching guys out,” Hinch said. “He’s been able to miss bats his entire major league career. And that’s very, very attractive this time of year and it’s why I’ve put him in some situations where punchouts are huge with guys on base or in a certain area of the lineup where we think we can seek a punchout.”
While James has already used the lessons he’s learned to succeed in the postseason, he knows that pitching in the World Series will be a whole new challenge.
To help prepare, James and Michel are using the example of a star from another sport.
“I’ve expressed to him how much I like Kobe (Bryant) … and we’re trying to get to his mindset,” James said of the 18-time All-Star and five-time NBA champion. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there because he’s special, but just to have something to work toward is our goal.”
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