Pitcher Chad Cordero, once one of baseball's best closers, is making progress from shoulder surgery, surprising Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu with his progress.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The familiar feeling, which had been buried for two years, was back. The ball was coming out of his hand as easily as it did in those seasons in D.C., when Chad Cordero was as good a closer as there was in the game.
It didn’t matter that this was just another desert day in Surprise. It didn’t matter that the regular season still was more than two weeks away and that Cordero’s chances of heading north with the bullpen-rich Mariners were slight.
He was throwing hard again, getting big-league hitters out again, throwing pitches to their intended spots.
And when he threw a 91-mph third strike past Kansas City’s Brayan Pena, his first strikeout of the spring, Chad Cordero strolled off the mound as if he had just punched out Ryan Howard in a playoff game.
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“It was pretty cool,” Cordero said, sitting on a stool in the Mariners’ clubhouse. “It’s made me feel pretty awesome, really. It was a great feeling walking off the mound.”
Underneath spring training’s big top, there are hundreds of daily personal dramas played out in the late innings when the stands have thinned and the final score no longer matters.
These moments don’t make headlines, but for the players in the middle of them, they are as important as life.
“That pitch, it was like, ‘Holy cow, I’m back in 2005,’ ” Cordero said. “It was a great feeling, like I’m almost there.”
In 2006, Cordero was an All-Star closer for the Washington Nationals. Between 2005 and 2007, he saved 103 games. He led the big leagues in saves in ’05 with 47. At 23, he was the youngest pitcher ever to record more than 40 saves.
But in 2008, he started feeling pain in his right shoulder. He tried to ignore it, tried to pitch through it, but finally the Nationals shut him down.
He was diagnosed with a torn labrum. He had surgery in July 2008. His career was jeopardized.
The road back for Cordero has been painful and meandering. Even though he couldn’t pitch, the Mariners signed him to a minor-league contract in March 2009.
All he could do last spring was play catch and throw a few bullpen sessions. He didn’t face live hitters until June.
“It was pretty weird,” he said.
It was like somebody else’s arm was attached to Cordero’s body.
“Making an evaluation on him last spring, I wouldn’t have thought he’d be this far along now,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “I wouldn’t have thought he could come back at all.”
On a good day last season, when he pitched for the Northwest League’s Everett AquaSox, Cordero’s fastball hovered in the low-to-mid 80s.
“I was trying to come back too fast,” he said. “It was wishful thinking on my part, thinking I could make a speedy recovery. It’s the kind of injury that used to end careers.”
The Mariners believed enough in Cordero that they re-signed him as a minor-league free agent last December. He was reassigned Wednesday to their minor-league camp, and Wakamatsu said he probably would start the season in Class AAA Tacoma.
Cordero’s repaired right shoulder needs more innings. And he still needs to refine his mechanics. He will be bullpen insurance for the Mariners.
“If they want me to go to Triple-A, that’s fine,” he said. “I totally understand. They might want me to pitch some more innings, try to face a few more hitters. It’s just one of those things you have to do in order to come back.
“As much as I want to be up here, I’ll totally go down there and have a good time and do what I need to do to get back up here.”
Cordero doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. Through this arduous process, he never felt sorry for himself. Never thought he was the victim of a rotten break.
“I don’t think it’s rotten. I had 4 ½ really, really good years in the big leagues, and I enjoyed myself a whole lot,” he said. “Baseball’s still a game and I’m still young. It’s really not like ‘poor me.’ I’m still only 28, and hopefully I still have a long way to go in the game.
“I think of this as a learning experience. Everybody’s going to go through injuries at one time or another, especially when you’re a pitcher. But now, this spring, I know I can still pitch in the big leagues.”
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org