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In the Right Mindset: Tillman Pugh uses the power of psychology to perform

Contact: Brennan Mense
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Yogi Berra famously once said “baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” A math whiz, he wasn’t, but when he uttered those words, Berra had a point.

Throughout baseball history, there as tales of careers derailed by tricks of the mind. In extreme cases, world-class baseball players struggle to make simple throws that millions of average Joes can make without thinking twice about it.

No, Gary SouthShore RailCats outfielder Tillman Pugh was not at that point, not by a long shot.

However, following the 2016 season, his second with the RailCats, Pugh went under the knife to repair a hip injury. Post-surgery, his recovery timetable required him to take it slow physically.

So Pugh came up with an out-of-the-box idea to better himself as a player, even when he couldn’t train.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to train physically in the offseason,” Pugh said. “I decided if I was going to be ready to play this year, I needed to do something, so I decided to train my mind.”

To do that, Pugh sought the help of a sports psychologist.

At the time, Pugh’s career was at a crossroads. Yes, in 2016, he led the RailCats with eight home runs in just 56 games, but at the same time, he hit just .232, and at 27 years old, he was four years removed from his last appearance in affiliated baseball.

At the time, conventional adjustments didn’t seem to do the trick.

So, with the help of his sports psychologist, as well as the newly-repaired hip, Pugh returned back to his native California to play for the Vallejo Admirals of the Pacific Association for the 2017 season.

He would respond with the best season of his career, packing a .322 average with 18 home runs, 58 RBIs, 71 runs scored and 30 stolen bases into a 75-game season, capturing league MVP honors as the Admirals took the Pacific Association crown.

After an encore with Vallejo and a brief stint with Ottawa in the Can-Am League, Pugh signed with the RailCats on July 9, his third tour of duty with Gary.

After arriving at the ballpark just 90 minutes before game time following a cross-country flight, Pugh would pinch hit against the Texas AirHogs in the seventh inning that night. On the very first pitch he saw, he laced a sharp single up the middle.

From there, Pugh has not stopped hitting. In fact, Pugh has reached base in all 28 games he’s appeared in for the RailCats, most recently going 3-for-3 against Winnipeg on Wednesday night.

Overall, he comes into this weekend’s series against Sioux Falls hitting a scintillating .361, with an OPS of 1.017, 18 runs scored, and 19 RBIs. Despite not joining the RailCats until their 48th game of the season, he is also tied for the team lead with six home runs.

For Pugh, he feels that a lot of the success goes back to the sports psychologist.

“That’s really helped me tremendously,” he said.

Now, the question is, what did the sports psychologist specifically teach Tillman Pugh?

For Pugh, a lot of his work was based on helping improving his self-confidence, with some help from a source that perhaps might seem surprising.

“The best way to feel self-confident is to go back to a time where you feel unstoppable,” Pugh said. “That’s what I like to do a lot, look at old videos where I was the man, unstoppable and just try to re-live it.”

Pugh does admit that his resurgence at the plate is came through more than just a confidence boost, adding that he’s re-tooled his swing to emphasize a more gap-to-gap approach, rather than the pull-happy approach he previously used.

In addition to his success changing drastically from his previous stints in Gary, Pugh now finds himself as the second-oldest player in the RailCats clubhouse (younger than only Jorge De Leon), embracing a new role in the locker room as a mentor for younger players.

“It comes around full circle,” he said. “You gain those experiences as a younger guy from the older guys, and they instill that knowledge and wisdom in you to pass it on.”

Part of that knowledge and wisdom pertains to sports psychology, with Pugh saying that he’s talked to several of his teammates about it.

“I think it definitely resonates with a lot of guys,” he added.

Thanks to a re-invented approach mentally and physically, Pugh finds himself in the middle of the order for a team in the middle of the playoff race.

With the end of the American Association regular season schedule rapidly approaching, there is one destination beyond that on the mind of Pugh and his teammates:

“A championship is where we all want to be.”

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