By JOHN PERROTTO
BRADENTON — The red flags, in retrospect, should have gone shooting into the air on the first day of last year’s Grapefruit League season.
Early that morning, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced left-hander Tom Gorzelanny would not make his scheduled start in their exhibition opener against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., because of mild left elbow irritation.
That began a downward spiral for Gorzelanny that never ended in 2008.
“Looking back on it, I might have done some things differently,” Gorzelanny said as he prepared for Friday, when pitcher and catchers report to Pirate City.
What Gorzelanny decided to do was downplay the severity of his elbow injury to the Pirates’ medical staff when he reported to spring training.
Gorzelanny won a team-high 14 games in 2007 and seemed on his way to establishing himself as one of the better young pitchers in the National League. The offseason was even better. He bought a house in Pittsburgh, got married and learned during his wedding reception that Jeff Andrews, his mentor and friend as a pitching coach in the Pirates’ farm system, had been named the major-league pitching coach to replace the fired Jim Colborn.
Thus, Gorzelanny felt he was on top of the world when he got to Bradenton last February. It didn’t really matter that he had slacked off on his offseason workouts and his elbow ached because he had not thrown enough in the winter months to keep it strong.
“I figured once we got started with spring training, everything would be fine, I’d get back into shape and my arm would stop hurting,” Gorzelanny said.
He assumed wrong. The extra 15 pounds didn’t go away and neither did the elbow pain.
By the time the season was over, Gorzelanny was a big reason why the Pirates finished 67-95 and Andrews was fired during a season in which they believed a talented young rotation would help the franchise take a step forward under new manager John Russell.
Gorzelanny went 6-9 with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 21 starts and was also sent on a seven-start detour to Class AAA Indianapolis beginning July 4. Most distressing was that Gorzelanny had more three more walks than strikeouts (70-67) in 105 2/3 major-league innings.
That came on the heels of what seemed like a breakthrough ’07 in which he we was 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA in 32 starts.
“It was humbling,” Gorzelanny said. “I learned a lot about myself and to not take things for granted. I realized that the hard work doesn’t stop once you have success in the major leagues.”
Gorzelanny admirably tried to pitch through the elbow discomfort. But now he second-guesses himself for not having the problem attended to early on.
“I didn’t think it was that serious, and I really wanted to build off what I had done the year before,” Gorzelanny said. “I’m a competitor. I wanted to take the ball every fifth day and pitch. I didn’t want to go on the disabled list. Looking back, it was selfish on my part. At the time, though, I felt I was doing the right thing by not letting my team down.”
If there is a silver lining to Gorzealanny’s nightmarish 2007, it is that he did have some success during his hiatus in the minor leagues. He went 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA for Indianapolis, striking out 33 and walking just four in 35 innings.
New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan certainly thinks Gorzelanny’s career is salvageable and is encouraged that the 26-year-old has dropped that excess 15 pounds he was carrying last season.
“You don’t win 14 games in the major leagues by accident,” Kerrigan said. “He has proven he can be successful in the major leagues and I don’t think there is any question that he has the talent to succeed. Sometimes, young pitchers veer off course.”
His lessons learned, Gorzelanny believes he is on course for a season more like 2007 than 2008.
“Last year was so frustrating that I never want to go through anything like that again,” he said. “It made me hungry to come back this season and pitch the way I know I’m capable of pitching.”