LOS ANGELES – Jorge Sosa raised his chin and hid the baseball, returned to the minor leagues and tried to start over again.
Chin to the target, Pedro Martinez had told him. Front shoulder in.
Bring the ball back like so, he had told him, so the hitters can't see it.
Believe in it, he'd insisted. Remember when you believed it?
Rick Peterson, the New York Mets pitching coach, approved and tweaked. Mark Brewer, Mets Triple-A pitching coach, monitored and adjusted. Sandy Alomar Jr. and Mike DiFelice, been-around catchers in New Orleans, called for sliders on top of sliders until they were right. Omar Minaya, Mets General Manager, brought Sosa back to the big leagues.
Yeah, sometimes it takes a village to re-raise a pitcher.
"So far," Sosa said in the days leading to his eighth start for the Mets, "I've put together what they told me to do."
He is 6-1 with a 2.64 ERA in seven big-league starts since Orlando Hernandez came down with a sore shoulder and Chan Ho Park bombed and the Mets ran out of alternatives. He was 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA in five starts at triple-A, there because the winter pitching market was typically thin and it hadn't been that long since he was a decent pitcher.
When they hand the baseball to Sosa tonight at Dodger Stadium, he'll take it as a pitcher who has found his way again or as a pitcher who has found it for the moment. While the Mets would prefer the former, they'll take it either way, because at a time when they've won 18 games and lost 16 over five weeks, Sosa, the rescue-and-recovery project, has won a third of them himself. In fact, Sosa is the only Mets pitcher to win a game in June, and he's won twice.
"I don't know what he did when he went to the minors," catcher Ramon Castro said. "I know he's better. He looks like a pitcher."
Castro has caught Sosa's last three starts – at Detroit, vs. Arizona and at Florida – and the Mets have won all three. In them, Sosa has allowed three runs in 20 1/3 innings.
"Nobody expected him to do what he's doing right now," Castro said. "You look at his face. He's more confident. He's like somebody else pitching. His head's in the game."
Sosa is 30 years old. Two seasons ago he was 13-3 for the Atlanta Braves. Had he pitched enough innings to qualify, he would have ranked third in the National League in ERA, behind Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and before Dontrelle Willis and Pedro Martinez. As it was, he was 10-2 after June 27 as a regular starter, and was in the Braves' rotation when 2006 opened.
That's when it all went bad. He lost nine of his first 10 decisions and was out of the rotation before the All-Star break, his place taken by rookie left-hander Chuck James. His fastball was unreliable. His slider hung. Hitters almost never missed. The Braves designated Sosa for assignment near the trading deadline, settled for a living, breathing player in return from the St. Louis Cardinals, who then non-tendered him less than five months later. By the end, Sosa had allowed 30 home runs, the 14th-most in baseball, in 118 innings, 116th in baseball.
"It was real difficult for me last year," he said. "However I usually got outs, I suddenly had a hard time getting them. I couldn't locate those pitches.
"I was searching for somebody to sit with me and tell me what I was doing wrong. I'm very happy Omar Minaya and [assistant general manager] Tony Bernazard had confidence in me, that I could be the same pitcher I was in 2005. They gave me the confidence to be myself again."
Leaning on the dugout rail, late-afternoon sun bright off his sunglasses, Bernazard shrugged and said, "We needed protection. That was the main thing."
Now, the Braves and Cardinals would seem to know something about pitching.
And, yet, here stands Sosa, half-dressed in a gray Mets uniform on a day the Braves and the Cardinals rank in the National League's bottom five in starters' ERA.
Nobody saw this coming, other than Sosa, and maybe not even him. But, with an assist from Martinez, the Mets reworked his mechanics and directed his momentum toward home plate rather than across his body. He drew the ball back behind his body, introducing some deception. The hard, biting slider returned. The fastball generally went where he threw it. The changeup mystified left-handers.
Martinez convinced him it could all work again.
"Basically, Pedro told me to have confidence in yourself, because you did it before," Sosa said. "It's not like you haven't."
The last time Sosa pitched at Dodger Stadium, he was on his way to 13 wins, to a place in a rotation of royalty. Two years later, as the Mets wait on Martinez's return and their rotation to be whole again, Sosa is again coming from somewhere else, looking to stay.
"Well," he said slowly, "I believed in myself."