Spring training | Pirates' Phil Irwin no stranger to adversity

Pirates' Irwin struggles in first spring start; he's been through worse

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 18, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Similar to the balk rule, retractable roofs and interleague play, Tommy John surgery is a once-foreign concept that has become an everyday piece of professional baseball.

Named after the veteran lefty who underwent the invasive procedure in 1974 and pitched effectively for 15 more years, the surgery has been performed on a who's who of not only pitchers, but position players, as well.

Look no further than the Pittsburgh Pirates' clubhouse.

A.J. Burnett experienced it in 2003. Reliever Mike Zagurski had it done in 2008.

And 41-year-old Jose Contreras, signed to the team earlier this spring in an attempt to make a comeback, had Tommy John Surgery performed on his right elbow in June 2012.

Then there's Phil Irwin. He's a different case altogether.

Burnett, Zagurski and Contreras all had big-league experience before the surgery, where a ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from another spot in the body.

Irwin, however, hadn't

yet thrown a pitch a college.

Following a successful career at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tenn., and before throwing a pitch for Ole Miss, Irwin suffered an elbow injury.

He underwent surgery December 2006 at the age of 19.

"It took me a while to get back on track," Irwin said after making his first start of the spring Sunday against the New York Yankees. "Not just from a health standpoint ... but I wasn't near the guy I was when they recruited me."

Coming back from Tommy John Surgery is arduous, typically costing players at least one full season.

Pitchers generally throw for the first time 16 weeks after the surgery on flat ground from a distance of 45 feet. And when Irwin did, he said he felt anything but comfortable.

"The first time you throw a ball, you want to underhand it," he said. "It's very insecure, like, 'I hope this thing doesn't break,' even though it's completely secure and everything's good. But mentally, it's a struggle."

Irwin had to wait 14 months before getting back into a game and even longer before he felt like himself on a mound, felt like the guy who won 21 games and a state championship during three years of prep baseball.

"It's tough to come back and get to where you were before. You just go back to what you think you know, and it ends up being completely different than what you were doing," Irwin said.

Then Irwin had what he called a "light bulb" moment. It occurred during the 2008 Coral Gables Regional, in which Irwin helped Ole Miss beat Bethune-Cookman by striking out nine in four innings.

It was his first save of the season, but more importantly, it sent Irwin into summer ball on a high note.

That turned into a strong redshirt junior season, when Irwin posted a 2.83 ERA in 130 1/3 innings and was taken in the 21st round by the Pirates.

"That's the only thing that got me drafted," Irwin said.

He has tallied a 3.02 ERA in 413 2/3 professional innings and went 3-0 with four starts last year during his first stint in Triple-A Indianapolis. Irwin is in his first big-league camp this spring and recorded nine strikeouts in his first eight innings spread over four appearances.

He stumbled Sunday, however, allowing six runs, seven hits and two walks in 2 1/3 innings during the Pirates' 11-9 loss to the New York Yankees.

"It was a tough day for Phil," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Everything you know about Phil you didn't see from Phil (Sunday). He pitched behind in counts, made his breaking ball short. ... He didn't have a go-to (pitch)."

Irwin plans on learning from the experience, however, and plans to re-evaluate what went wrong and go from there.

After all, he does have some experience bouncing back from adversity.

"It's gone pretty well, up until this point, of course," Irwin said. "I'm learning a lot right now, what I can and can't do out there, how I need to prepare, how much I need to focus on different things.

"Now I've got my first start. It didn't go so well, but it's not going to be my last start."

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