Fine-tuning, healing in Japan turns Lewis into ace

The low moment could've come the day he found out his right shoulder, his moneymaker, had three tears. Or maybe it was when, during his recovery, he felt like he was throwing 95 mph, asked a kid holding a radar gun and found out it was 81. No, no. It was definitely March 19, 2007, the day after Colby Lewis'(notes) first son was born, when the Washington Nationals called and told him he was no longer employed.

Lewis didn't know what to say to his poor wife, Jenny, flush with post-partum hormones. This was life as a baseball player on the periphery: rife with disappointment, nomadic, cruel. The game doesn't have time to celebrate births for a player like Lewis.

Baseball breeds washouts, and a handful head to Japan, the pasture for the so-called 4-A ballplayer – better than Triple-A, not good enough for the big leagues. In 2008, Lewis went there well aware that almost no one returns.

Which makes what he's doing in 2010 all the more special. Not since Cecil Fielder in 1990 has a former major leaguer come back from a stint in Japan with such success. When the Texas Rangers outbid almost a dozen other teams and signed Lewis to a two-year, $5 million deal last winter, they imagined he would fill out their rotation capably.

Not with a .204 opponents' batting average, though, a mark better than everyone in the American League except Jon Lester(notes), Phil Hughes(notes) and David Price(notes). Nor with 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings, 11th in the AL. The speed bumps that slowed so many others returning from Japan – Darrell May and John Bale(notes) and the dozens who went back to the minor leagues – have been nothing but anthills for Lewis, who has been the first-place Rangers' best starter.

"Colby was different than the typical export who goes over there," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He wasn't a journeyman. He had been hurt. He was a guy with some pedigree, multiple pitches, a good idea what to do, but he hadn't pitched."

The difference between pitching and throwing was long lost upon Lewis, who, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, never divined the difference. The Rangers chose him in the supplemental portion of the first round in 1999. By 2002, he was in the major leagues. Lewis owned a big fastball and a heavy curveball, and that was enough until his posterior labrum, rotator cuff and biceps tendon ripped apart in 2004. The Rangers' team doctor gave him a 70 percent chance to pitch again. Lewis missed the rest of that season and all of 2005 after another surgery to remove scar tissue, and when he started pitching again, the fastball and curveball were neither big nor heavy.

Like most pitchers after shoulder surgery, he bounced around: Detroit, Washington, Oakland, Kansas City. Each hoped he'd figure things out, all knew he probably wouldn't. Rather than rot at Triple-A hoping for an injury, Lewis took the $1 million guaranteed money from the Hiroshima Carp. He was 28.

"I looked at it like another chance to play baseball," Lewis said. "I didn't care how many thousands of miles it was away."

Or how different the game and the culture. Baseball is revered in Japan, and heroes from the United States – gaijin, outsiders are called – are revered. Quickly, Lewis established himself as one worthy of the excitement. In his third start, he threw 138 pitches, which exceeded any sane pitch count in the United States but was considered normal in Japan. He realized his fastball could play against the Japanese hitters more accustomed to an array of breaking balls. And rather than flop his curveball over the plate, Lewis tightened his slider and saw it get strikeout after strikeout.

In his two seasons with the Carp, Lewis whiffed 369 and walked only 46 in 354 1/3 innings. Major league scouts in Japan buzzed about his performance, leading to the frenzied bidding for him this offseason. No one was as vociferous as Rangers scout Joe Furakawa and director of pro scouting Josh Boyd, who in Lewis saw a prodigal son.

Lewis, too, felt it was time. When his contract with Hiroshima expired at the end of the year, he consulted with Jenny and they decided to return to the U.S. After their son, Cade, was born, she was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid disorder. They plan on having another child and preferred to facilitate the process with American doctors.

Texas was an easy choice. Lewis had unfinished business. In his three previous seasons with the Rangers, Lewis had posted an earned-run average of 6.83, struck out 127 and walked 109. In 10 starts this season, his ERA is 3.41, with more than twice as many strikeouts as walks.

"He was talking earlier this year about his strikeout-to-walk ratio," Daniels said. "How many guys do you hear at such a fundamental level understand something so important?"

Not many, and even fewer study available data like Lewis. He wants to know what works against whom and why. Overpowering hitters with his fastball is no longer an option, so he prefers to take the tack used by the man with the same last name as his current mentor.

Mike Maddux, the Rangers' pitching coach, is in charge of making sure Lewis pitches as much like Greg Maddux(notes) as he can. If Lewis' fastball sits at 90 mph, he needs to move it up and down and side to side, change speeds and complement it with a strong breaking ball. The slider he honed in Japan is just that – the best in the major leagues this season, according to FanGraphs calculations.

"If I translated what I was doing there to here, I didn't think I'd have a problem getting guys out," Lewis said. "You hear all the guys saying that was Japan and this is here and hitters are bigger and better. When it comes down to it, you have to be yourself."

And he has, unapologetically. Lewis went to the glue factory and came out Secretariat. The periphery is but a distant memory. Lewis is where he always belonged.