ANAHEIM, Calif. – Remember the date: July 24, Game 88. That’s when Mike Pelfrey exhaled.
He is a member of that Tommy John surgery fraternity, the one in which not every pitcher gets all his stuff back after having his elbow reconstructed. Some come back to compete but don’t have the stuff they had before the surgery. Some just aren’t able to return. The right touch, the right feel for all their pitches is the last thing to come, and sometimes never comes.
Then there are some who get it all back. Pelfrey and the Twins have waited and wondered if that day would ever come for the righthander.
But after holding the Los Angeles Angels to one run over six innings in a 1-0 loss Wednesday at Angel Stadium, Pelfrey was able to utter that emancipating 11-word sentence.
“I feel like I’m back to what I used to be,” said Pelfrey, who had his surgery May 1, 2012.
Let Pelfrey’s season begin … after 18 starts.
Against the Angels, Pelfrey kept the ball down consistently. He put the ball on the corners of the plate. He set up hitters and finished them off. His slider and curveball were pretty good weapons. He threw several pitches at 94 miles per hour and touched 96 a couple times.
“You’re seeing him regain that arm strength after every start,” catcher Ryan Doumit said of Pelfrey, who signed with the Twins as a free agent this season after seven years with the New York Mets. “The progression has been what we all expected. I faced Pelfrey enough in my career to know what he has and it’s not a comfortable at-bat. Now other AL players are starting to notice that as well.”
It has been incremental progress to this point. Over his past eight starts, Pelfrey has a 3.54 ERA. Over his past four, 2.28. He had a 6.85 ERA on May 26 and has gradually brought it down to 5.15. Some believe a stint on the disabled list last month — when he came down with a back strain — was a great time for his arm to get a break.
Pelfrey gave up a single to J.B. Shuck in the first, watched him steal second and score on Albert Pujols’ single. That was the only run the Angels needed to avoid getting swept in the three-game series.
Pelfrey gave up one run on five hits and one walk. He had five strikeouts. He got seven ground-ball outs. What stopped him from getting a victory was Angels righthander Jered Weaver, who nearly 15 months after no-hitting the Twins in Anaheim held them to two hits and a walk over eight shutout innings.
“There really weren’t too many hard-hit balls,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Pelfrey finished the sixth inning with 94 pitches and lobbied to pitch the seventh.
“I wanted to go out there and empty the tank,” he said. “They said, ‘From here on out we’ll let you go, but we want to protect you and take care of you here.’ You always appreciate that. I’m thinking as a competitor you want to keep going as long as you can. But what are you going to do? I tried to plead my case and it didn’t work.”
Being able to lobby for another inning was hard to do as he searched for his old form. Now that he believes in his pitches and command again, the Twins get to see just what they have in Pelfrey. It could be a huge boost for a rotation that has lacked consistency most of the season.
If must feel good for Pelfrey to say that he is back where he once was.
“I was always pretty hard on myself and I was out there with kind of a helpless feeling,” said Pelfrey, who went 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA with the Mets in 2010. “You couldn’t throw a secondary pitch for a strike — curveball or slider — and didn’t have a feel for it. And it was tough. But I can actually feel those coming out of my hand now and it makes a huge difference with the sinker.”