VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Despite winning his past six decisions and being named UPI's Comeback Player of the Year in 1991, some wonder whether Orel Hershiser will be the same pitcher he was before undergoing radical shoulder surgery in 1990.
Hershiser isn't bothered by the skepticism. He wonders, too.
"If one day I pronounce I'm back as far as the form of 1985 or 1988 . . . that's such a huge statement," the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander said Wednesday during a 3-0 loss to Montreal. "I don't know if that would happen. It would take a lot of thought and a lot of consistency and endurance before I made that kind of a statement."
Hershiser, 33, isn't ready to make that statement, even though he proved last season he can still win in the major leagues. Hershiser was 7-2 with a 3.46 ERA, including a 2-0 record and a 1.04 ERA in four September starts.
Hershiser received the most run support of any National League pitcher -- the Dodgers averaged 7.7 runs in his seven wins. But here's all someone needs to know about his return to prominence: Had the Dodgers been alive in the NL West race on the season's final day, manager Tommy Lasorda would have handed the ball to Hershiser.
"It's not like my ability left me," Hershiser said. "It's just that an injury stopped that ability from coming out of my body."
In 1988, the Dodgers rode that ability to a World Series title. Hershiser won the NL Cy Young Award with a 23-8 record and a 2.26 ERA, punctuating his season by pitching a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings. He was named Most Valuable Player in the National League Championship Series and the World Series.
But the Dodgers may have ridden Hershiser's right arm too long. After averaging 263 innings from 1987 to 1989, he paid the price for all those pitches.
In simple terms, Hershiser had worn down the edge of his shoulder joint. After making only four starts in the 1990 season, Dr. Frank Jobe reconstructed the anterior capsule and tightened the ligaments in his shoulder. It was the first time a major-league pitcher had undergone this type of surgery.
"I knew there was no guarantee I would pitch again," Hershiser said. "Every time I was able to throw the ball, I thought it was a gift."
After more than a year in rehabilitation, Hershiser returned to the majors in May. But he looked more like an older Orel Hershiser than the Orel Hershiser of old.
With a pitch limit on every outing, Hershiser never lasted more than seven innings. But he continued to improve, and by the end of the year he was the Dodgers' most consistent pitcher.
"No question, I hated to see the season end, especially because we finished only one game back of the Braves," he said. "But I know that's no guarantee I'm going to start this season on a positive note."
Yet, there are signs this spring that his success has carried over. Tuesday, he became the first Dodgers pitcher to throw four innings, allowing two hits and one run in an 8-3 loss to Houston.
Hershiser's outing was significant for other reasons: He threw with no pain; it was his first outing without his physical therapist in attendance; and he produced eight ground outs, indicating his trademark sinker is returning.
"I don't think an educated eye could tell the difference between the way I'm pitching now and the way I pitched 'pre-op,' " Hershiser said. "But you have to remember we're only talking four innings in a spring-training game."
Still, Lasorda has been impressed with Hershiser. But the manager knows better than to expect another 23-8 season.
"He's throwing without pain, and that's the most important thing," Lasorda said. "I don't know if he'll ever be the pitcher he was. I don't know if anyone knows that right now."
Hershiser hopes he's around long enough to find out. Then again, even if he stayed healthy there would have been no guarantee he could have matched his Cy Young performance.
"I'm just looking forward to doing things I used to do," Hershiser said. "I don't mean win games or throw 59 scoreless innings. I mean being able to execute pitches in certain situations. I'm starting to be able to do that, and that has me excited."