Back on the farm: Big league dreams still thriving
Circumstances may be different, but goal remains the same for players in Minors
Despite his modest surroundings, Bill Bray was in high spirits on a recent afternoon as he prepared for a game with the Nationals' Double-A Harrisburg affiliate
The veteran Major League reliever had joined the team a week earlier from extended spring training and said he was having fun. At least, he was competing in real games again, even if it was only in front of a few thousand fans.
But the road back to the big leagues often isn't smooth. Injuries derailed the left-hander's 2012 season with the Reds, and mechanical problems ruined his chance of making the Nationals this spring, leaving him behind at the team's complex in Viera, Fla.
Now the health factor emerged once more. Bray's May 14 appearance against Richmond was his fourth for Harrisburg and last before a sore pitching shoulder sent him to the disabled list and right back to Viera.
"I handle it the same way I handle the rest of this year. I just take it day by day," Bray said by phone last week from Florida. "I wasn't physically able at this point to continue to play at Double-A, so this is where I've got to be. I put my trust in the Lord that I'm here for a reason, and I go to the field every day with the same goal of getting better and doing everything I can to get back and pitch as soon as I can."
Bray was far from the only Harrisburg player with experience under the bright lights of The Show. The Minors are full of players -- young and old, prospects and journeymen -- who go up and come back down, then try to find a way to make the climb again.
They share a goal, but all fight their own particular circumstances.
Anthony Rendon still had plenty of reasons for optimism when the Nationals optioned him back to Harrisburg on May 3, following his first big league stint. The 22-year-old, a first-round Draft pick of the Nationals two years ago, said he did not consider his demotion a negative, knowing he would only be filling in while third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was on the disabled list.
"Honestly, not that I didn't care, but I knew my stint wasn't going to be that long under the circumstances, so I wanted to make the best of it while I was there," Rendon said. "And then I came back [to Harrisburg] and kept doing the same thing I was doing."
Sure, Rendon enjoyed the nice food, travel and other comforts available at the highest level. But he had the luxury of knowing that his stay in the Minors almost certainly was temporary.
Rendon hit .338 with four home runs, 17 RBIs and a 1.136 OPS in 19 games after his demotion. He was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday, then completed his quick journey back to the Majors on Tuesday, when the Nationals recalled him to replace the injured Danny Espinosa at second base.
"It's always a shock, but you work hard for these kind of moments, and that's what you play the game for," Rendon said on Tuesday in the Nationals' clubhouse. "You try to play at the highest level, and I'm fortunate to be here."
The comeback candidate
When Bray signed with the Nationals as a free agent in December, he was supposed to contend for a spot in the team's bullpen. But his mechanics, altered by a groin injury the year before, dissolved.
"It was about as bad as you could get," said Bray, who turned 30 on Wednesday. "After the injuries last year, my throwing mechanics, my arm swing, my takeaway were just so off."
Bray went back to what he called "Pitching Mechanics, 101," spending 25 straight days doing nothing more than throwing a ball into a net. Finally, the Nationals assigned him to Harrisburg, a place he last pitched in 2005. A first-round pick by the Expos the year before, Bray made his big league debut with the Nationals in '06 and was traded that summer to Cincinnati, where he stayed through last season.
Bray struck out six in 4 1/3 scoreless innings for Harrisburg, feeling his stuff come back even as he continued to search for his usual high three-quarters arm slot. But the pain in his shoulder built -- just a little at first and then more and more until he simply couldn't throw. With the stress of pitching to live hitters, plus the extra drills and long toss, Bray admitted he probably tried to come back too fast, too soon.
But in Viera, the soreness began to subside. Bray started playing catch last week, with an eye on returning to the mound soon and a plan to alter his daily routine.
"I'm very comfortable here, but I'd definitely like to go north at some point in the near future and get back to doing what I do," Bray said. "I felt like I was throwing really well at Harrisburg, so I was really disappointed."
The career farmhand
Jerad Head played in 10 games for the Indians in 2011, six years after he signed with the organization as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Washburn (Kan.) University. But if the 30-year-old outfielder feels any nostalgia for his proverbial cup of coffee, he's not particularly interested in dwelling on it.
"It was one of my better seasons and I just had a great season, end of the year got called up," he said. "Nothing really stands out."
But that doesn't mean that month with Cleveland is gone from Head's mind, even as he finds himself in Harrisburg after a year spent with the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate.
"It's something you hold on to," he said. "Obviously you get a taste of it, you want to get yourself back."
That's a stiff challenge for someone in Double-A at his age. Still, Head enjoys coming to the ballpark every day and playing. He does extra work and keeps plugging away because he loves the game, and you never know when an opportunity will arise. As Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy pointed out, his former Twins teammate Lew Ford went from an independent league to the Orioles last season, five years after his last big league action.
"I think the guys here who have had a taste of it, they've realized how precious it is to make it to the big leagues, but also having a second chance to get that opportunity to keep putting that uniform on," LeCroy said. "Because I tell the guys all the time, 'As long as you've got a uniform on, you've always got a chance.'"