2/24/2013 10:39 A.M. ET
Renewed confidence has Pelfrey soaring
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Confidence is such a fickle and delicate quantity. It can't be touched, but it can be crushed; can't be forced, but it can be fortified; can't be seen, but it can disappear. And, as it turns out, reappear. Mike Pelfrey can tell you all about the ebb and flow of feelings of self-worth. But at this early stage of the baseball annum, he's busy reveling in the intangible that once again accompanies him to the pitcher's mound.
His elbow has been reconstructed, but after months of rehabilitation to strengthen his arm, it's his confidence that seems significantly stronger. Pelfrey is certain his future has been rescued. And at the same time, the Twins are realizing they may have imported more than they knew when they signed him in mid-December. They sensed they may have something special here, a 29-year-old right-handed pitcher with naturally sinking stuff who can put opposing hitters in their place -- on the bench -- and give his new colleagues reason to believe.
After merely days with Pelfrey in their midst, the Twins are pleasantly surprised by what he is and how he works to improve. Pitching coach Rick Anderson told him last week, "I wish you could have been here last year. I wish the young guys we had could have seen you go about your business."
Like a well-struck comebacker off the shin, those words made an impression, a most positive one. Pelfrey took his coach at his word. It sounded so good to him. He hadn't realized how much he missed praise.
"It did make me feel good," Pelfrey said. "That's how I used to feel."
For years in his teens and early 20s, when he was pitching at Wichita State, Pelfrey was a marked man, the guy lesser pitchers watched and followed.
A player can tell when his colleagues consider him the best.
Of course, all this "oh boy!" stuff could morph from a tale of "I feel great" and "All my pitches are working" into one more April oops. Pelfrey can speak to that as well. But as he settles into Anderson's classroom and sees no new obstacles in his path, Pelfrey is as buoyed as he ever has been. Even now, weeks before the Tigers at Target on April Fools' Day, Pelfrey is genuinely excited and anxious.
And his arm is better too.
"I didn't know if I'd ever feel this way again," he said.
Pelfrey appeared to be the chosen one in 2005 when the Mets made him the ninth player selected in the First-Year Player Draft. At the time, the Mets weren't thinking as the Twins are now, that he would be part of any renaissance; they were on an apparent upswing. Just the same, they viewed Pelfrey as critical to their ensuing seasons. He was special to them, and he enjoyed the feeling.
"I'd go out to pitch and expect good things," he said. "Sometimes they happened." And too often, they didn't. Pelfrey lost standing in the Mets' pitching hierarchy and not only because of his doing. Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Livan and Orlando Hernandez were parts of the rotation. Their resumés dwarfed his. In more recent seasons, he seemed to be overlooked when Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and other young pitchers reached Citi Field.
At one point, Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson couldn't seem to decide which pitches Pelfrey should include in his repertoire. Confusion found its way into Pelfrey's thinking. As it entered his thoughts, it passed confidence moving in the other direction. Yet, as recently as 2010, Pelfrey produced a 15-9 record with a 3.66 ERA for a sub-.500 team with a challenged offense.
Pelfrey contributed to the Mets' continued collapse in 2011, losing 13 game and winning seven. But he still pitched 193 2/3 innings. No longer special, he still had value.
Pelfrey fondly recalls last April when "it all finally started to click. I was pitching against the Phillies, had a 3-1 count on [Jimmy] Rollins and I threw him a curveball. I'd never thrown a breaking ball in that situation, but I did. I saw he wasn't expecting it. I got him, and I said, 'OK, that's how.'"
He allowed one run in six innings in that game and one in eight six days later against the Giants. He began to feel special again. Then his elbow betrayed him.
Unwilling to accept conservative treatment for fear of postponing surgery and compromising his 2013, Pelfrey threw more and harder than he should have following the diagnosis of a 20 percent tear in his ligament. He rejected the notion of waiting and the time-consuming schedule of blood-spinning treatment. He essentially forced the need for surgery. And the ligament responded as expected; it snapped.
Now, a wildly accelerated rehab -- Pelfrey did far more than his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, had recommended -- has him on the verge of returning to competition 11 months after a tendon from his left leg was put in his right elbow. "At one point, I was supposed to cut back and I misunderstood. I didn't," he said. "I told Andrews and he said, 'Well, if your elbow isn't telling you to cut back, you don't have to." Pelfrey's elbow has yet to say "no mas" and he has pushed himself to the point where he has thrown live batting practice three times in a five-day period. That qualifies as serious OT.
"What got me going after the surgery is that I realized how much I missed the game, I couldn't stand not pitching. I was watching every game I could on TV and realizing how much I love the game. I wanted to get back. I didn't want to come back in May. I wanted April. I wanted as much baseball as I could get.
"I never thought I was taking it for granted at the time, I worked at my pitching. But I guess I was. It means more to me than I thought it did. It was the first time baseball ever had been taken away from me. It was devastating. I love this game."
And now he appreciates all facets of it more. He was brought up in Kansas and enjoys the Midwest. After he signed with the Twins, Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Jon Rauch, all Mets teammates last season, contacted him. "They told me I'd love it here. And I do. It's a little easier going than New York," Pelfrey said.
"Ya know, I'll miss some things about the Mets. I called Dan [Warthen, the Mets' pitching coach] and told him, 'I care about you' and 'Thanks for everything.' I felt really good that Sandy [Alderson, the Mets' general manager] respected me enough to call and wish me well. It made me feel good.
"I'm feeling pretty good about a lot of things, especially myself."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.