PEORIA, Ariz. – With each pain-free pitch, with each healthy outing, it gets more realistic to ponder an annually recurring question:
What if Erik Bedard is back to his old self?
Bedard continued to tantalize on Thursday with his third straight impressive outing of the spring. It wasn’t flawless, as his previous two had been – he gave up his first three hits and first run of spring, and Bedard said afterward he struggled with his command of inside pitches. But it was a roaring success in one significant way: Bedard’s thrice-repaired left shoulder continues to be a nonissue.
“It’s encouraging,” Bedard said. “The more starts under my belt I feel healthy, it’s really good.”
The longer that remains the case, the more realistic it is to envision a 2011 Mariners rotation with Bedard in it. And that would be a hugely positive development for a team that needs a few.
“He’s one of the premier left-handers in the game,” said teammate Jason Vargas. “If we can get him back at half of that, it’s pretty exciting. If he’s healthy, that makes our rotation extremely good.”
It would give Felix Hernandez a left-handed complement – not quite Cliff Lee, perhaps, who filled that role last year for a much shorter time than envisioned; but someone who, manager Eric Wedge said, in his pre-injury days “was one of the best left-handers in the league when he was at his best in Baltimore.”
This is the point at which I’m obligated to warn about getting too giddy. Last year, Bedard made it through two rehab starts in Arizona and one in Tacoma in late June and early July, and was all set to start against the Kansas City Royals on July 6.
But he felt shoulder discomfort, was scratched, and never pitched again in 2010. Instead, Bedard went under the knife on Aug. 6, his third shoulder operation in as many years.
On Thursday, after yielding three hits and one run against the Angels (one of the hits was a high hopper in the infield, and another was a broken-bat looper) over 2 2/3 innings (with a walk and two strikeouts), Bedard said he has stopped thinking about his shoulder. If reporters didn’t ask, he said, smiling, “It wouldn’t even cross my mind.”
Bedard was relaxed and pleasant after the game. Asked if he kept trying to attack the inside corner, he said, with a laugh, “That’s what I did – and I missed it over and over.”
Bedard also said he feels like the same pitcher he was before the surgeries.
“We’ll see during the season, but right now, health-wise and stuff-wise, I feel the same as I was before,” he said.
The vision of a healthy and stuff-laden Bedard is what enticed Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi to trade five players – including outfielder Adam Jones – to the Orioles for Bedard before the 2008 season. It was, perhaps, his most controversial and criticized deal, polarizing the Seattle fan base.
Bedard pitched well for 15 starts in ’08 (6-4 with a 3.67 earned-run average) until he succumbed to the shoulder problems that would haunt him for the next two-plus years.
He also had to endure criticism about his desire that, in retrospect – three surgeries later – has proved to be unfair.
“I think a lot of people thought his injury wasn’t as bad as it was and kind of gave him a hard time for it,” Vargas said. “There’s been a lot more question marks and people questioning, I don’t know, his will to play. I don’t think that was ever the question. You don’t ever know what’s going on inside somebody’s body, and you don’t know what somebody else is feeling.
“I think to see him come back and be doing well is great for us, and great for him.”
Vargas believes Bedard was hurt by the insinuations.
“He’s one of those guys that’s thick-skinned, but when you’re continually getting questioned, and told you’re not earning your money, I think that would get to anybody. It’s not his fault he got hurt. It’s something that’s out of his control. Baseball’s a game where contracts are guaranteed, so it’s just one of those things.”
Much of what we thought we knew about Bedard has proved to be wrong. The early impression that he was not happy in Seattle was contradicted by the fact he has twice re-signed with the Mariners after becoming a free agent. And he has shown himself to be one of the most popular Mariners in the clubhouse, belying his reputation for moodiness.
The last barrier for Bedard in Seattle would be to finally become, at age 32, the consistent winner they hoped they were getting three years ago. And that’s largely dependent on the continuing health of his left shoulder.