Last September, when he returned to a big-league mound 16 months after having Tommy John surgery, Jorge De La Rosa thought he was ready.
Hadn't he sweated out the lonely hours of rehab and rebuilt strength in his shoulder? Hadn't he packed his swollen elbow in ice a gazillion times? Hadn't he endured the inevitable setbacks and plowed straight ahead?
He thought he had conquered the fear too. But every time he threw a pitch, he checked his left elbow as his mind whispered questions.
Would the fiery pain return if he cranked out a hard slider? Was his big-league career one pitch from being over?
When his three September starts produced ugly results — a 9.28 ERA over 10 innings, with little life to his breaking pitches — De La Rosa was understandably discouraged. And more than a little bit angry.
"It was harder than I thought," the Rockies left-hander said last week. "After (September), I was still worried. I wasn't feeling very good."
But De La Rosa is feeling very good now.
He enters his next start, Tuesday in Houston, with a 6-3 record and a 3.40 ERA. Two weeks ago, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in St. Louis against the powerful Cardinals. He's consistently throwing his fastball 91 to 92 mph, occasionally touching 94.
If the Rockies are going to be true contenders, De La Rosa, making $11 million in the final year of his three-year, $32.5 million contract, must continue to pitch like an ace.
"We had faith in Jorge and thought that this surgery would work out," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' vice president of major-league operations. "We looked at him as a 'front of the rotation' type of starter before he got hurt. Knowing the history of success with the surgery, we thought Jorge probably would come back strong."
The success rate for major-league pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery is about 85 percent, according to Dr. James Andrews, the renowned Birmingham, Ala., orthopedic surgeon. Still, the recovery time varies for each pitcher and the road back can be as taxing as a four-wheel drive trail.