Early in spring training righthander Bret Saberhagen walked up to Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and said, "I want to pitch in the All-Star Game this summer." Kerrigan grinned, as if he was looking at a pitcher who had thrown only 26 major league innings over the previous two seasons and hadn't won a game in the last 30 months—which, of course, he was.
Needless to say, nobody in the Boston organization expected Saberhagen to begin this season 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA (his performance through Sunday), except perhaps Saberhagen. "I haven't surprised myself, but I've surprised a lot of other people," Saberhagen, 34, says. "Everybody thought I was washed up, and that's what gave me an edge."
Over the past two years Saberhagen has fought his way back from one of the most elaborate reconstructive shoulder surgeries ever performed on a pitcher. During his rehabilitation, which forced him to miss the entire '96 season and most of '97, Saberhagen regularly experienced pain so harsh that it woke him up at night. He suffered many setbacks and often doubted he would make it back.
Finally, on April 5, he defeated Randy Johnson and the Mariners, his first win since Sept. 26, 1995. "I would have loved to have seen the odds on that game," Saberhagen says. "Before that night I bet a lot of people didn't know where I was or that I was still pitching."
Aware that Saberhagen no longer had an overpowering fastball, Kerrigan helped the two-time Cy Young winner refine his curveball to better complement his fastball and changeup. "I wouldn't call him a finesse pitcher," Kerrigan says. "Bret reminds me of those guys who pitched in the '60s and '70s, like Catfish Hunter and Tom Seaver, guys who were both creative and fearless on the mound."
Says Saberhagen, "Before I got injured, I never wanted to see scouting reports. I had the mentality that if I have my stuff, I should win the game. Now I think a lot more out there."
After a 3-2 victory in Cleveland last Saturday, a game in which Saberhagen allowed one run and three hits in six innings, Indians hitters complimented his fastball and his ability to spot his changeup on 3-and-1 and 3-and-2 counts. "He's still a legitimate power pitcher," Cleveland third baseman Travis Fryman says, "but what makes him so tough is that he can locate the ball anywhere in the strike zone on any pitch."
Saberhagen is still restricted to about 100 pitches a game, so his next goal is to work into the seventh inning. He believes he can throw 200 innings in '98, which could earn him a second Comeback Player of the Year award—he won his first 11 years ago—and a $250,000 incentive bonus that must have seemed like a pipe dream when he signed a new contract following his surgery.
It's fair to conclude that Saberhagen is well acquainted with baseball mortality. "I remember when Chris Bosio came up to me in spring training and told me he was calling it quits because of injuries," he says. "I remember thinking, That could have been me. It makes you appreciate each pitch."
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