Jon Garland performed the most remarkably unremarkable feat Friday. He threw to live hitters during practice. Never has ho-hum seemed so...
PEORIA, Ariz. — Jon Garland performed the most remarkably unremarkable feat Friday. He threw to live hitters during practice. Never has ho-hum seemed so exhilarating.
That’s because it was the first time in 20 months that Garland, formerly a workhorse’s workhorse, had been able to do what was once routine. You used to be able to tell time according to when Garland would pitch. Every fifth day, he was ready. And every fifth day, he was certain to give his maximum.
From 2002 to 2010, the right-hander averaged 13 wins, 33 starts and 205 innings a season. He pitched for playoff teams, made an All-Star Game and won a World Series with the Chicago White Sox. His career hasn’t been defined by dominance as much as durability and determination. But 20 months ago, a wicked shoulder injury sent him out of baseball and left him scuffling to recover.
Garland is healthy now, and at age 33, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound pitcher is attempting to make a comeback with the Mariners. Competitive as ever, he refused to look at his progression from simply throwing to a catcher to actually trying to get batters out as anything more than an opportunity for self-deprecating humor.
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I asked Garland about the significance of what he did Friday.
“How bad I was,” Garland said. “That was significant to me.”
He wasn’t happy with his mechanics. But here’s what matters most: He felt fine a day later, even though he was more aggressive than he has been in nearly two years.
“So that was a big step for me,” Garland said.
Next step: Complete reclamation.
Garland has already impressed the Mariners this spring. He has a legitimate chance to make the starting rotation if he can knock off more rust. And what a story that would be after the physical and mental challenge he has endured since June 2011.
The last time Garland pitched in a game, he produced a quality start, allowing three runs in six innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the usual. How many times had Garland done this in his 2,083-1/3 career innings?
But that performance was different. Garland was grinding through intense pain. Every time he threw, he felt it. He had experienced it for quite a while but ignored it, figuring that every player feels a little discomfort. He didn’t realize something was wrong until he started “anticipating” the pain.
“A lot of times, it was after a game or at home sleeping, I’d feel it,” Garland said. “But it got to a point that year with the Dodgers that, before I even threw the ball, when it was in my hand, my thought process was anticipating the pain instead of focusing on the pitch I had to make. Instead of focusing on the game, I was more preparing for the pain I was going to feel. Once it got to that point, I was no good to anybody.”
Soon after, Garland would learn of the problem: A tear in his rotator cuff was causing most of the pain. But his California-based surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, also needed to clean up damage to his labrum and bursa. He had surgery about a month after his last start.
“You go from pitching every five days and having a long career to not being able to sleep laying down or sleep standing up,” Garland said. “You can’t even pick your arm up. You can’t even put clothes on without feeling it. You think it’s the worst thing ever.”
Garland missed the last half of the 2011 season and all of 2012. He came close to signing with Cleveland last spring, but he backed out by declining to take a physical because he wasn’t ready.
“I’m not going to take a paycheck just to rehab,” Garland said. “You have other guys there that are 100 percent willing to go out and give their team a chance. I wanted to make sure that I was ready to go before I signed back with a team.”
After a year of rehabilitating and training in private, Garland believes he’s ready now. Duane Shaffer, the Mariners’ western supervisor of pro scouting, knew Garland from when they both worked for the White Sox. He kept in touch with the pitcher and visited several times as he attempted to return to form. Over the offseason, it became clear to Shaffer that Garland deserved a chance. The Mariners signed him to a minor-league contract earlier this month.
“He has a great opportunity here,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Jon Garland is an established veteran major-league pitcher. With the caliber of person and pitcher that he is, he deserves an opportunity to make this club.”
There’s no guarantee. The Mariners are blessed with so much young pitching talent, and ultimately, if any of those youngsters prove themselves ready, Garland will be nudged out of the mix. But if Garland is anything close to the dependable pitcher he has always been, it’ll be hard for the Mariners to ignore his knack for pitching deep into games and giving his team a chance to win every time.
All Garland cares about is the opportunity. After 20 months away from baseball, he embraces competition. And when thinking about his injury, he considers the perspective gained more important than the time lost.
“I’m only thinking about this year,” Garland said. “I think I’ve always done that. I think it goes back to being content. If you say, ‘I want this,’ and start looking too far ahead, you start taking it for granted. And if you start taking it for granted, the game’s going to take it away from you. Because it doesn’t owe you anything. It doesn’t owe anybody anything. The way I look at it, I owe the game for what it’s done for me.”