Dr. Phil couldn't have arranged a better therapy session. Encountering his first live batter this spring since being struck in the forehead by a line drive last September, lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii found himself facing Astros outfielder Brian Hunter—the same man who had hit the ball that caused Ishii's season-ending skull fracture. In the off-season the question had shadowed Ishii like the band of Japanese reporters who trace his every step: How would he handle the mental aspect of facing hitters after an injury similar to the one that derailed the career of Boston's Bryce Florie three years ago?
Here's how: On Ishii's fourth pitch of spring training Hunter ripped a hard one-hopper right back at the pitcher, who without flinching leaped to snag the ball, albeit unsuccessfully. That was the only hit Ishii allowed in a sharp two-inning performance. "I was nervous," he said after the game, "but I was able to answer some questions today."
The Dodgers haven't had a 20-game winner since 1990, but they hope that Ishii's smooth recovery portends a reversal of fortune for a staff that has been decimated by injuries in recent years. Last season L.A. had more money tied up in five starting pitchers ($42.6 million) than seven major league teams spent on their entire payrolls—yet the Dodgers' three highest-paid starters ( Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby) combined for only a dozen wins.
After signing a four-year, $12.2 million deal in February 2002, Ishii got off to a dazzling 8-1 start. Then he lost nine of his last 15 decisions, had a 5.57 ERA after the All-Star break and finished as the NL leader in walks (106). "The first half was a case of ignorance is bliss," says pitching coach Jim Colborn. "His initial success was a residue of what he had accomplished in Japan. Then things caught up to him. Batters adjusted, and he began to get a sense of everything around him, including the pressures."
Colborn worked with Ishii on compacting and slowing his motion—particularly his right shoulder movement—to maintain consistency. The 29-year-old has also developed a cut fastball and a changeup to complement his two signature pitches, a low-90s fastball with nasty movement and a knee-buckling curve.
Ishii says he has also adapted to the little things that bothered him last year, such as the feel of the baseballs (in Japan they're slightly smaller) and the mounds (in Japan they're packed more softly). "I also know who my teammates are now and where to get things in the clubhouse," he says, "and that's a big help too." The mellow Ishii dismissed the Dodgers' suggestion that he seek counseling after being struck in the head. He says he's never been more relaxed, especially after his wife, Ayako Kisa, and son, Kanta, decided that they would move to Los Angeles later this year. "You see a big difference," says catcher Paul Lo Duca. "There's a calm that wasn't there last year."
Two other starters returning from injury are Brown and Dreifort, who have come to represent why lucrative, long-term contracts for pitchers are such a high risk. The Dodgers know better than to get too enthused about Brown's seemingly good health this spring. Over the last two years the 38-year-old righthander, who signed a seven-year, $105 million deal after the 1998 season, has had elbow and back surgery and started only 29 games. Since signing a five-year, $55 million contract after the 2000 season, Dreifort has had two elbow operations and four victories. This spring the 30-year-old righthander threw 94-mph fastballs and breaking balls that were as sharp as ever. "After the elbow surgery [in 2001]," says Dreifort, "I went back to the basics. Rehab was a chance for me to get rid of all the bad habits I'd developed." Dreifort used to step across his body in his delivery, but now he directs his follow-through toward home plate. The change has stabilized his upper body and allowed him to throw with improved velocity and command.
Brown, Dreifort and Ishii join Hideo Nomo and Odalis Perez in the rotation, pushing nine-game winner Ashby into the bullpen. "Just thinking about what our starting pitching is capable of has all of us juiced up," says Lo Duca. "If they're healthy, we have the best pitching staff out there."