Pettyjohn claws back after 7-year absence

Dusty Baker used fisherman’s terminology to describe left-hander Adam Pettyjohn’s slashing and sliding fastball. He waved his hand like a trout captured in a net.

“That’s what he throws,” Baker said. “In and out, cutting and tailing and sinking. Nothing straight.”

It took seven years of swimming upstream for Pettyjohn to complete an unlikely return to the major leagues. He pitched one scoreless inning Sunday for the Cincinnati Reds, his first appearance since 2001. His story is hard to believe, but this is no fisherman’s tale.

Pettyjohn’s career was severely sidetracked when he developed ulcerative colitis that led to three surgical procedures, including the removal of his colon in 2002. A year after striking out Ken Griffey Jr. in his major-league debut for the Detroit Tigers, he lost 65 pounds and was reduced to lifting five-pound weights and learning to walk again.

Thus began Pettyjohn’s journey through baseball’s backwaters to somehow return to the big leagues. He doesn’t care to dramatize the ordeal – at one point his surgeon said he was 48 hours from death – but there is no getting away from his extraordinary comeback.

“Everyone knows someone battling back from something,” Pettyjohn said. “I wanted to be able to say that I made it back. If somebody got strength from that message, great, then it wasn’t all about baseball. Once you go through something like that, it changes things.”

His goals are more modest than they’d been as a second-round pick out of Fresno State in 1998, when three years later he earned a spot in the Tigers’ rotation and wanted to become a premier starter.

“I wanted to prove that I could get big league hitters out again,” he said.

Simple. Modest. Excruciatingly difficult.

“I came close to quitting,” he said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

Twice released and once sold, Pettyjohn retreated into the independent leagues in 2005. He brooded, resenting the rejection he believed was solely the result of his illness.

“I vanished from baseball for two years because of health issues, not because of performance issues,” he said. “You leave for two years and it’s forever.”

Pettyjohn made it back to Double-A in 2006, the old man of the Texas League, and was released in June, about the time he turned 29. He inched his way to Triple-A, but Oakland didn’t tender him a 2007 contract. Pettyjohn was surviving while learning to pitch again.

In 2007, he found himself. He went 16-6 between Double-A and Triple-A for Milwaukee, yet was never promoted to the Brewers. This year he went 15-6 at the Reds’ Triple-A Louisville affiliate, and after striking out 10 in one of his last starts, Baker noticed. He had seen Pettyjohn in spring training and didn’t think he was ready, but to Baker, winning is winning regardless of what the radar gun says.

“Fifteen wins are 15 wins,” Baker said. “Sixteen wins are 16. I see him and I think Tommy John and Jamie Moyer. That’s pitching.”

And so, Pettyjohn pitched, entering Sunday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks to begin the sixth inning, the score tied 1-1. It had been seven years since Pettyjohn faced a major-league batter.

Tony Clark, Pettyjohn’s teammate on the 2001 Tigers, stepped to the plate and scorched a line drive to right field that stayed in the park by a few feet – a long single.

Pettyjohn took a deep breath, pitched from the stretch and struck out Chris Snyder. Augie Ojeda followed with a soft single, Clark advancing to second. Another deep breath. Pinch-hitter Jamie D’Antona, who once hit a grand slam against Pettyjohn in Triple-A, popped up to first base and David Eckstein popped up to third base. The inning was over in a game the Reds eventually won 2-1 in 10 innings.

“I didn’t know how to feel,” Pettyjohn said. “I didn’t want to be too happy because I wanted it to be another game. But it’s also hard not to think back and see what it took to make that happen.

“Regardless of what happens from here, I know I can always say that I made it back, and that means an awful lot.”

After the game, Baker gave him the lineup card, a symbolic gesture that Pettyjohn appreciated. That long swim upstream had paid off.

“It felt good to be back in the water,” Pettyjohn said. “Just like I remember it.”


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Updated Friday, Sep 19, 2008