ANAHEIM, Calif. – The frayed labrums, torn rotator cuffs, blown ligaments and irritated biceps made a comeback Saturday night, to say nothing of the achy groins, tender hamstrings and blood clots.
Advancing against the trend of aces and other top starters being carried to the disabled list – from New York (Pedro Martinez, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina) to Detroit (Kenny Rogers) to St. Louis (Chris Carpenter) to L.A. (Jason Schmidt) – former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon took the ball for the first time in almost nine months and threw it 94 miles per hour.
Even better for the Los Angeles Angels, when Colon got it back, he did it again and, by all appearances, will again in five days.
Colon returned behind one other disabled Cy Young winner (Eric Gagne, the closer, in Texas) and ahead of three others (Randy Johnson in Arizona, Martinez and Carpenter). He healed while others pitched, and now he's pitching while Cliff Lee heals, and Felix Hernandez heals, and Rich Harden heals, and Francisco Liriano heals.
In the meantime, Chase Wright, a left-hander straight out of Double-A, will pitch for the New York Yankees Sunday at Fenway Park. And Sidney Ponson and Odalis Perez opposed each other Friday night in Kansas City. And they might never tear the ball out of David Wells' left hand.
Maybe there were eras in baseball when the starting pitching was thinner. But, maybe, never so fragile, not at the front ends of rotations, not three weeks into April.
"It's a very precious, very unstable position," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "You know what they're like? They're like dot-com stocks."
Colletti bought Schmidt for $47 million over three years in the winter and might have completely missed the boom years. Schmidt showed up with a fastball he could hardly get out of the mid-80s and, after three starts, he's on the disabled list with a vague shoulder ailment. Now Mark Hendrickson is pitching in Schmidt's spot. In a sellers' market, Colletti seemingly had the depth and the opportunity – and perhaps the motivation – to trade both Hendrickson and Brad Penny. He resisted.
"We've all seen it," Colletti said. "You never have enough. I must have said it 10 times in the offseason, that you've never heard a G.M. say, 'Geez, we've got way too much pitching.' "
The Angels aren't complaining. But on Saturday afternoon, a few hours before Colon's start, they optioned left-hander Joe Saunders to Triple-A Salt Lake. Saunders, the 25-year-old left-hander, was 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts. Another 25-year-old, right-hander Dustin Moseley, was 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts, and he's become a long man in the bullpen.
"We'll see where this thing leads," Scioscia said. "But our depth right now happens to be real strong at that position."
They are the exception, and it took them nine months to get there, to get back to Colon and the five they'd planned on.
Others aren't even that fortunate. The Yankees are down three starters. The Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Oakland A's and Florida Marlins are down two. The Atlanta Braves had counted on Mike Hampton pitching for the first time since August 2005, and at the end of spring training signed Mark Redman instead. He's 0-3 and his ERA is nearly 9.
There are theories. Games have been played in frigid temperatures. Technology is detecting injuries previous generations of pitchers might have pitched through. Pitchers are ordered to pitch through less and less. There is too much money to risk in pitching through pain, both in terms of performance and longevity. Performance-enhancing drugs – for those pitchers on them and those coming off – certainly have played a part, though it is impossible to know to what extent.
"We as a group are more conservative because of the value of pitching," one American League executive said. "In reality, I think these kinds of injuries happen just about all the time. But every year we get into panic mode. Panic mode just came a little earlier this year. It does seem like there's more of the top-end guys, the guys you can't replace."
Like Pedro Martinez, Colon opted for patience and work over surgery. Like Martinez, he pitched with the tear in his shoulder for long enough to know when, finally, there was no choice but to stop. Colon said the two spoke often during his recovery.
"I don't think I went as long as Pedro," Colon said. "I learned from Pedro that he did pitch through pain, and I didn't want to keep going through that."
Colon pitched seven innings and gave up only a run against the Mariners, themselves without Felix Hernandez for an undetermined time.
"It was definitely a different feeling," he said. "I asked God that I don't have to go through that again, because it was scary at some points. It's such a different feeling that I don't have to hold back."
Baseball, then, had claimed one less rotator cuff. The rest, they're on their own.