Orioles' Bergesen says struggles of past year have made him better

Starter says he's healthy, stronger, ready to pitch in exhibition opener Monday

February 26, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — When it was finally over, when he had thrown his last pitch in the Orioles' 2010 season finale, Brad Bergesen retreated to the home clubhouse at Camden Yards and dropped into his chair.

For a while, he just stared up at the ceiling, lost in a myriad of thoughts. He then took out his cell phone and texted his wife, Shea, and thanked her for everything she had done for him over the previous five months.

"That's when it hit me," Bergesen said. "It was so draining. It had been such a tough year for me, and I was just ready to move on and recuperate."

Bergesen recovered from a left shin injury only to hurt his right shoulder while filming a team-sponsored commercial. He endured two demotions to the minor leagues and an ERA that did not dip below 5.00 until late September.

As he looked back on the 2010 season while preparing for the Orioles workout Thursday, Bergesen said all the adversity has made him better. His shin has healed, and his shoulder feels stronger. They're only about two weeks into spring training, but catcher Matt Wieters said Bergesen's patented sinking fastball has returned, too.

"Last year, I wanted to hide it or force it or make myself believe it," said Bergesen, who went 8-12 with a 4.98 ERA in 30 games (28 starts) with the Orioles in 2010. "Right now, knock on wood, I'm truly healthy with my arm. At this point, I'm where I want to be. I'm very happy, mechanically, with what I've seen so far. Now, it's just a matter of getting in the games and seeing how it goes against the hitters."

Bergesen will get that opportunity Monday as he is scheduled to pitch in the Orioles' Grapefruit League opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton. On a team with a retooled offense and a revamped bullpen, the performance of the rotation is expected to be the key determinant in whether the team improves. A return to form for Bergesen, who went 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA and was the Orioles' best starter in 2009, would go a long way toward solidifying that group.

"I like Bergy," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said when asked about scouts' opinions that Bergesen's stuff might not succeed long term in the American League East. "He's a great kid. He's athletic. … Don't you sell his stuff short. His mound presence got a lot better. I like him. Some people might talk to you about him as a reliever, but I'm looking at him as a starter."

While the 25-year-old right-hander is a favorite to take one of the available rotation spots, he said his mindset is to impress the new coaching staff and "do everything I can to earn the job."

That was also his mentality last spring, when he reported to camp well behind other Orioles pitchers. His left shin bruise, sustained July 31 when he was drilled by a come-backer off the bat of the Kansas City Royals' Billy Butler, an injury that ended his season and his American League Rookie of the Year candidacy, lingered well into last offseason. He hurt his shoulder that December because he threw too much, too hard and too soon while trying to make things look as realistic as possible for a commercial shoot.

Bergesen maintained an aggressive rehabilitation program on his shoulder and made five starts last spring, compiling a 5.59 ERA. Those struggles continued into the regular season as he went 0-2 with a 12.19 ERA in his first three starts of 2010.

"I think he wasn't healthy at the beginning of the year, so he changed his motion so his arm would feel how he wanted to be able to go out there and pitch," Wieters said. "I think that took away some of the sink he had the year before."

Bergesen acknowledged as much, saying, in hindsight, it probably would have been beneficial for him to start the season somewhere else other than the big leagues.

"I'm not going to lie, I was becoming such a mental head case during the beginning of the year, trying to rush myself, trying to accomplish something that probably wasn't attainable," he said. "Looking back, I probably shouldn't have started the season when I did. I did because I wanted to bulldog it and everything, but the arm strength wasn't there, my normal mechanics weren't there and it showed. I was absolutely terrible at the beginning of the year. That was really tough to deal with for the first time."

The lowest point might have come April 19 in Seattle, when Bergesen lasted just 22/3 innings against the punchless Mariners, allowing seven runs (four earned) on six hits and three walks. After the game, then-pitching coach Rick Kranitz summoned Bergesen to manager Dave Trembley's office, and during an emotional meeting, Trembley informed the second-year pitcher that he would be optioned to Triple-A Norfolk. Knowing how hard Bergesen had worked to come back from his injuries, Trembley was nearly in tears as he explained the necessity of the move to the media the following day.

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