Pirates pitching trio seeking variety of comebacks
Volquez hoping to join rejuvenated Wandy, Locke in Pittsburgh rotation
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The three pitching wayfarers who had lost their ways are hitting the comeback trail from quite different points, hoping that all comeback roads lead to the same place: the Pirates' starting rotation.
Jeff Locke tries to return from a second-half abyss.
Wandy Rodriguez tries to return from a forearm injury that stuck to him like gum to the sole of your shoe.
Edinson Volquez tries to return from oblivion.
That is potentially a big chunk of your 2014 rotation. Fallback options abound in a Spring Training camp overrun with big prospects with big arms and big promises. But these three don't have to prove they can do it, just that they can do it again.
Locke pitched his way onto the 2013 National League All-Star team, allowing three hits or fewer in half of his first 18 starts. Then a lower-back tweak kept him off the mound for one start -- and threw him off his rhythm for the rest of the season.
From then on, the young lefty had to keep his between-starts agenda to workout-light.
"He was unable to do the weight stuff he did in the first half. He never regained his form, then his confidence waned," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "When you cut out part of your routine you're used to doing all the time to keep your muscles firing, it's going to have an effect on you."
"I never like to make excuses," Locke said, "but, sure, I just tried to make it out there to pitch every time. And, at the end of the year, maybe I got a little fatigued."
Volquez has had a much longer spiral from All-Star status. He achieved that in 2008 when he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA for Cincinnati, validating the Reds' choice to acquire him from Texas for outfielder Josh Hamilton. But in the five seasons since, the 30-year-old righty has gone 33-35 and posted an ERA of 4.94 with three different teams.
"It's been more concentration than anything. Sometimes I get too confident," said Volquez, whose amazing 2013 splits confirm a tendency to derail once his wheels come off the track.
In his nine wins, he sported a 2.77 ERA. In 12 losses, the figure was 8.25. It was all or nothing.
"He has a tendency to pull his eyes off the target," said Searage, explaining how Volquez led the NL with 105 walks in 2012. "And when he'd land [at the end of his delivery], he'd roll rather than land firmly. All the video we saw from the past years, you can see the roll-off."
Rodriguez has never been an All-Star. But he made 30-plus starts in four straight seasons until he hit a wall last June 5 he could never get over. The strain of the tendon in the elbow would ease up enough for him to go to the bullpen, go even on rehab, but the discomfort always returned.
"It will always be in the back of my mind, and I'm sure in the back of his, too," Searage admitted. "Until he gets to the point where he feels comfortable. One of his biggest hurdles will come when he gets out there in the first [exhibition] game and competes. That'll be the game-changer."
Three locksmiths. They hold the key. They have their outside cynics, who mock the Bucs for still considering Locke, for signing Volquez, for counting on Rodriguez.
Inside, the Pirates have solid reasons for optimism.
Locke is refreshed, and still long on talent if short on hair -- he has trimmed those flowing curly locks into a near-crew.
"Everything he did in the first half was not a fluke," Searage said, "and we hope to continue to help him give us that kind of performance again. He came in looking fresh. He was able to have a good winter program. He's stronger."
"I'm slowing it back down, remembering how it was the first two, three months of the season, when everything clicked and was so good," Locke said. "I want to get back to that. I didn't do anything different on the mound in the second half, it just didn't come out the same.
"It was a good learning tool for me. I want to be ready for more," added Locke. "I want to throw 200 innings. That's what everybody shoots for."
Volquez has entered the laboratory of pitching's Messrs. Goodwrench, Searage and Jim Benedict. Look what they did for Francisco Liriano. They can do the same for Volquez. Liriano, a childhood friend of Volquez who still lives only 20 minutes from him in the Dominican Republic, told him that himself.
"I told him people here can help him get better -- then he can help us win," Liriano said with a smile.
"We played in Little League when we were 12," Volquez said, "and Francisco said [Pirates coaches] could make adjustments like with him last year. He told me I'm going to love it here, and that we'll have the team to win. They've got the right coaches here to get it right, so it was a great chance to come to the Pirates. They've got a pretty good idea on how to make people better, so I think I'm in the right spot now."
"We know there's a good pitcher in there," manager Clint Hurdle said after watching Volquez's second bullpen session of the spring. "We feel confident we can help him find a comfort zone and the confidence where he can go out and repeat his delivery and regain that aggressive mentality he's had from time to time. We just need to help him be the pitcher he's been in the past."
After last month's mini-camp here and a couple of early side sessions, Project Volquez is off to a good start.
"It already feels a bit like it did years ago," Volquez said. "It's not a big thing for me to do it again. It will come naturally. I just want to make adjustments as quickly as I can, to be ready for the season."
"The biggest test will be when he gets those juices flowing again and faces Major League hitters in the exhibitions," Searage said. "But he is all-in, working on some key points in his delivery, and he took to it like duck takes to water."
Rodriguez has followed the medical prescription -- rest -- for months. He could not afford that last season, when the Bucs were fighting for their playoff lives and were understandably anxious to regain their veteran southpaw.
"We'll go 'pen to 'pen with him. He's on his individual program," Searage said. "Right now, the ball is coming out of his hand very good. There are no repercussions; he feels great."
"He'll feel more confidence every time he gets out there," Hurdle said. "With every step forward, he'll get more confident and I don't think it will take him a long time to get to the point where he can think, 'OK, now I can just get back to pitching.'"
That's what all three want, to go comeback-to-comeback-to-comeback in the rotation.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.