Play­ers sharpen up pregame with cross­words, chess, other puz­zles

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Kyle Newman Kyle Newman: 303954-1773 knew­man@ den­ver­post.com or @KyleNew­manDP

Pitch­ing is part feel, part ath­leti­cism and a whole lot of enig­ma­tol­ogy. That’s the term for the science of puz­zles, a genre un­der which pitch­ing cer­tainly qual­i­fies.

It’s a con­stant de­lib­er­a­tion be­tween fast­ball and off­speed, in­side or out­side lo­ca­tion, the weight of gut in­stinct ver­sus sit­u­a­tional scout­ing re­ports.

In those ways, the craft is an ex­er­cise re­quir­ing much of the same men­tal en­ergy as the com­ple­tion of a cross­word.

That’s why those puz­zles are of­ten pregame sta­ples for pitch­ers, with cru­civer­bal­ists — a.k.a. cross­word afi­ciona­dos — hav­ing long had a place in ma­jor­league club­houses.

“Even when I got to the mi­nor leagues (in 1979), I’d see guys do­ing cross­word puz­zles,” Rock­ies man­ager Bud Black re­called. “And when I got to the big leagues, there would al­ways be the daily guys, I’d say maybe a hand­ful of them, who would do a cross­word puz­zle every day and it was re­ally a part of their rou­tine.”

The Rock­ies’ cru­civer­bal­ist hap­pens to be the pitcher who’s hav­ing the best sta­tis­ti­cal sea­son on the team, as right-handed re­liever Adam Ot­tavino (0.95 ERA, 0.64 WHIP) does one of the puz­zles every day.

“It’s some­thing to do with your brain be­fore the game, to keep you en­gaged and sharp,” said Ot­tavino, cur­rently on the dis­abled list with a sore oblique. “I started do­ing it in High-A (in 2007) and I’ve been do­ing them ever since.”

And in the smart phone age, tra­di­tional printed cross­words lay­ing in stacks on ta­bles around the club­house have also been sup­ple­mented by other puz­zle apps such as Chess Tac­tics Pro, a sit­u­a­tional chess game.

Chad Bet­tis, an avid chess player at home, uses Tac­tics to warm up his brain every day, and he can be found play­ing it at his locker about 90 min­utes be­fore his starts.

“Like pitch­ing, the game is about prob­lem solv­ing,” Bet­tis said. “There’s times where base­ball can speed up on you, and you have to es­sen­tially fig­ure out what the best pitch is in a spe­cific sce­nario. Cross­word puz­zles, Su­doku, chess — what­ever it could be, all those games help re­fine that prob­lem solv­ing so that you can sort through all the ‘blah’ and get to what you want to do.”

Re­liever Scott Oberg has been a daily Su­doku user for about three years now, while even some of the Rock­ies po­si­tion play­ers are get­ting in on the puz­zle act pregame.

“I had been do­ing the New York Times mini-cross­words on my phone for about a year and a half,” in­fielder Ryan McMa­hon said. “I fig­ured I should step up to the full-size ones now af­ter Ot­tavino turned me on to them. But he knows a lot more words than me.”

Ot­tavino’s cross­word skills should come as no sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing the speedy rate at which the Jeop­ardy buff churns through the USA To­day edi­tion widely dis­trib­uted within the Rock­ies club­house — “I mean, it’s kind of weak, but it’s here,” he said — some­times com­ing back for a sec­ond help­ing by solv­ing The New York Times puz­zle.

“If I no­ticed some­one was do­ing The New York Times cross­word puz­zle,” Black said with a grin, “that al­ways peaked my in­ter­est. Like, ‘Hey, watch out for that fella.’ ”

Footnotes.

Oberg con­tin­ues his re­cov­ery from a lower back strain that sent him to the dis­abled list on Sun­day. He played catch to­day and yes­ter­day to 90 feet, not­ing: “Ev­ery­day it’s pro­gress­ing just a lit­tle bit bet­ter, and I’m wak­ing up with it not as tight as the day be­fore. I’m headed in the right di­rec­tion.”… Re­liever Har­ri­son Mus­grave was re­in­stated be­fore Wed­nes­day’s game from the be­reave­ment list. Mus­grave had been in West Vir­ginia be­cause of the pass­ing of his grand­fa­ther, and his re­turn meant fel­low left-han­der Sam Howard was op­tioned back to Triple-A Al­bu­querque… Tom Mur­phy made a sec­ond straight start at catcher fol­low­ing his pro­mo­tion from the Iso­topes on Tues­day, and Black noted the 27-year-old is sport­ing a lower, more ef­fec­tive crouch be­hind the plate: “We saw that in the spring, and this off­sea­son he worked a lot on the set-up and the stance.”

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