TAMPA, Fla. — It was midway through the 2012 season when CC Sabathia finally surrendered to the pain in his t elbow — it would ride shotgun with the big left-hander all the way to the disastrous final game of the ALCS against the Tigers. It wasn't until surgery in November that Sabathia's arm finally healed, but there was no forgetting the lesson of those last four months.
Sabathia had developed bone chips and, despite getting a cortisone shot, felt discomfort “every single pitch.” That was hardly a surprise: bone chips, or calcium deposits, are the nasty surcharge of repetitive motion — throwing a baseball. Sooner or later, the pain becomes a way of life for all big league pitchers, regardless of their salary, physique or mechanics.
From Sabathia, as durable as an NFL lineman, to Boone Logan and Clay Rapada, the Yankees' slender set-up men, being less than 100 percent is the great equalizer.
“Put it this way, any pitcher who tells you he's feeling great is almost always lying,” Logan said Saturday. “The reality is, feeling great means only a little soreness, because you've usually got something going on.”
The road to success is littered with stiff shoulders and twinges in the elbow. Sometimes it's a tight lower back that preys on a pitcher's mind, or a more insidious enemy such as jet lag after a coast-to-coast flight. Or just a poor night's sleep.
Of course, outsiders can't be expected to know how lousy a pitcher might feel on any given day. Even teammates might not be privy. Rule One of “The Code” says complaining isn't just prohibited, it's pointless. “If you tell someone (in the bullpen) you feel like (bleep), he'll say, ‘keep it to yourself, so do I,”' Logan said.
Medicine helps, but unless a player is willing to risk his career with PEDs, the most effective short-term elixir is adrenaline. The body's heightened state — accelerated heart rate, short, shallow breaths — allow a pitcher to temporarily forgot about the corrosive effects of a long season.
Logan, in particular, knows what it's like to wear down. His 80 appearances last year tied for the major league lead. Between the relief stints, the nights of merely warming up without entering the game, and playing catch during batting practice, Logan estimates he had “maybe 3-4” days all year in which he didn't pick up a ball.
That's a crazy workload, but Logan insists, “I love it. I mean, if I could pitch in all 162 games, I would. It's great coming to the ballpark knowing there's a good chance I'm going to be coming in to pitch with the bases loaded. There's no better feeling than getting the job done.”
Still, Logan knows he's shortening his career by pitching so often, just as Rapada — who appeared in 70 games in 2012 — knows his window of opportunity is here and now. Rapada says, “we're not machines” but going into his age-32 season, with a gimmicky, submarine delivery, realizes his career in the Bronx would end quickly if he were unable to take the ball 4-5 nights a week.
Not every Yankee reliever is subjected to the same pressures — at least not David Robertson, who's being groomed to replace Mariano Rivera in 2014. The Yankees are careful not to burn out Robertson too soon, especially after using him in 70 games in 2011 and discovering how fragile he can be.
The right-hander suffered through a nagging oblique injury in 2012 that, like Sabathia's bone chips, didn't resolve until November. But Robertson soldiered on, even on the days when playing catch before games he felt sluggish and admitted to himself, “I just don't have it.”
“That's when you have to dig deep and find a way to get hitters out, when you're more like 80 percent instead of 100,” Robertson said. “The only times I'm really 100 percent is opening day and the day after the All-Star break. That's where the mental side of pitching comes in, because no one cares how you're feeling, just that you get hitters out.”
Older starters work with a similar deficit. Hiroki Kuroda, for instance, threw 219* innings last year, a career high, and made no pretense about being fresh down the stretch. Being 100 percent was a pipe dream to a 38-year-old: when asked how many of his 33 starts he felt refreshed and pain free, Kuroda, after listening to the question through a translator, held up his right index finger.
“One,” he said.
Yet, Kuroda fashioned an impressive 16-win season, in part because he was able to lie to his senses — that 80 percent is actually 100. That's the other part of “The Code”. When in doubt, deny everything.
Case in point was Andy Pettitte's reaction to the line drive that broke his left fibula on June 27. Pitching against the Indians, Pettitte was unable to avoid the laser off Casey Kotchman's bat. He recalled the pain being so intense, “it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
Yet, when Joe Girardi rushed to the mound to ask Pettitte how he was feeling, the left-hander instinctively stonewalled the manager. “I'm fine, I'm fine,” he said.
“I'd been hit by line drives before, so I couldn't allow myself to think something was broken this time,” Pettitte said. “I kept thinking, this is just like any other (line drive). But deep down I knew something was really wrong.”
Pettitte's injury ultimately cost him just shy of three months, although he returned in late September and in time for the playoffs. And this week, in spring training's warm embrace, the veteran says he feels, “just great.”
For now, anyway. Nature and the game's irrefutable axiom will soon have their way: pitching, after all, is like love — it almost always hurts.
MCT Information Services