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David Brown

Zavada rides again! D-backs lefty, mustache mount comeback

David Brown
Big League Stew

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Clay Zavada(notes) still has work to do on his arm, and his handlebar mustache, before he is ready to return to the majors.

The Arizona Diamondbacks mustachioed man had a memorable rookie season in 2009 when he struck out 52 in 51 innings, doing so while looking like a left-handed Rollie Fingers.

He could not follow up in 2010. The mustache looked similar but Zavada couldn't throw strikes in spring training, and he continued to struggle during five appearances in Triple-A, before a proper diagnosis was made. He had an elbow injury that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

About 10 1/2 months later, Zavada is optimistic but realistic about his chances of making the team out of spring training.

"I got a long way to go," Zavada said over the weekend. "It's going good, progress is good, I'm advancing every day. But I've still got three bullpens to throw and then I've got to throw a couple of simulated games where we get a couple of hitters in there.

"And then getting into a big league [spring] game is my ultimate goal right now."

D-backs pitching coach Charles Nagy said Zavada won't be ready to face live hitters until March 8. Maybe.

Zavada cost himself some time — and perhaps some faith among the coaching staff — by reporting two days late to camp.

"He's a little behind because of the surgery and the timetable," Nagy said. "He was a couple days late showing up. He's thrown well and he feels good but he's still got to follow the progression of the throwing program."

Zavada and his agent gave conflicting reasons for being tardy. The agent said it was a sore arm. Zavada said it was personal matters, not related to baseball, that caused the delay.

The truth seems somewhere in the middle for Zavada, who already had dealt with an arduous road to the majors that included the death of his father and the uncertainty of what to do with his family farm in Central Illinois.

After another crisis of some kind, he realized that he needed to be at Salt River Fields and give more of himself to baseball.

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"There's no way I couldn't look anyone in the eye if I didn't give it a really, really good shot," Zavada said. "I couldn't look you in the eye if I just decided to pack ‘em up or whatever.

"I just had some things I had to deal with and I dealt with them and I'm moving forward."

Some fans — notably at AZ Snakepit — published an open letter at their website showing support for Zavada, who became a cult favorite as a rookie for his effectiveness, attitude and facial hair.

He's definitely aware of fans interest in him and the team. It shows in his 'Stache. But, as of the weekend, it wasn't ready to be twirled and waxed into handlebars.

In other words, it's spring training for mustaches too.

"It's getting there," Zavada said. "What do I gotta do? I need about another month. I'm not waxing it, I'm just kind of letting it chill, and then once I feel like the length is good, then I'll wax it up and start really getting them fans into it.

"We're entertainers. You can't forget that. I do it for the fans. Fans love it, the kids love it, everybody's having fun."

And that's why Zavada reported. And whether it takes extended spring training, or more time in the minors, he appears poised to put in the work. He is scheduled to throw again Tuesday.

"There's a little bit of road ahead of me. I would love to break with the team — that'd be awesome," Zavada said. "The life's there [on pitches]. My fastball is moving, cutting, sinking. The movement's there, the change-up's down. I feel pretty good with the breaking ball, too.

"Maybe in two weeks I can give you a better answer. But right now, I'm still kind of taking baby steps with the rehab process from the surgery that I had."

Nagy agreed with Zavada's assessment of how he's throwing, and that it would be advantageous to have him on the 25-man roster.

"It would be great," Nagy said. "It's a weapon out of the bullpen whenever you can get a quality lefty throwing strikes with that kind of stuff.

"Right now he's just free and easy, he's just letting it go," Nagy added. "He's thrown some good change-ups. He looks very comfortable on the mound. He doesn't look rusty at all. But there haven't been any hitters in there yet. So there are little hurdles that he's going to have get over."

Zavada has cleared hurdles before.

"You talk to other guys that have had [Tommy John], you see other guys that have had it and you see guys that have come back stronger and better than ever," Zavada said. "That's definitely a lot of encouragement there."

Follow Dave throughout spring training on Twitter — @AnswerDave — and check out the Stew on Facebook for more coverage.

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