These guys were supposed to be done. Whether because of injuries, age or simple ineffectiveness over the past few seasons, they were not only considered to be past their primes, they were believed to be near the end of their careers.
Well, Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Barry Zito and Chris Capuano have put up numbers this season more reminiscent of the early-to-mid 2000s than anything we had seen from them lately. Washed up? Hardly.
Of that quartet, Santana has had the most remarkable highlight this season by tossing the Mets' first no-hitter on June 1. The others have had some eye-popping performances of their own, with Zito recording his first complete-game shutout since 2003 and Peavy working back-to-back complete games for the first time in his career.
Not bad for three former Cy Young Award winners who had each been in the news more for injuries or disappointments than for wins or strikeouts in the past few years.
For Santana, who missed all of 2011 following shoulder surgery, his place with the Mets this season was a mystery entering Spring Training. Three months later, he sits at 3-3, but carries an impressive 2.96 ERA and has 73 strikeouts in 73 innings through 12 starts.
"I think that's what the whole thing's about," Mets manager Terry Collins said after Santana's no-hitter. "To do what he had to do, to have this surgery done and have people say, 'He's not coming back, his career's over. If he comes back, he'll be a sub-par guy, just another guy who had surgery who is being paid a lot of money, so he'll continue to pitch.'
"What's got him to this level is what he showed you. He trusts himself. He trusts his ability. He never gives up, never gives in. He said, 'I'm going to come back from this,' and it led to this."
Zito has garnered similar respect with his encouraging start to the season. It's been no secret that Zito hasn't lived up to the expectations of the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with the Giants prior to the 2007 season. In fact, after averaging 16 victories and winning the 2002 American League Cy Young Award during his six full seasons as a starter with Oakland, Zito hadn't approached that success in his first five seasons with the Giants, going 43-61.
Entering Thursday afternoon's start against the Astros, the lefty is 5-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 12 starts. He hasn't finished any season with an ERA that low since his dominating Cy Young season, when he went 23-5 with a 2.75 mark.
"Maybe he hasn't done what he wanted to in past years, but he always has been that same teammate and friend," said Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who pitched the Giants' first perfect game on Wednesday against Houston. "That shows a lot. That's pretty cool. A lot of times, you'll see somebody hanging his head and wanting to point fingers. But he mainly looked inside himself and tried to figure out ways to change it."
This past offseason, Zito put that mantra to work. Not only did he work with Tom House, a renowned expert in pitching mechanics, but Zito also began a throwing program around mid-October, just a little more than two weeks after the Giants' season concluded.
"For me, this offseason was really productive, regardless of the changes I made, because I was focused 100 percent on getting better, whichever way I could," he said.
And while Zito was working to improve, Capuano was working just to get another chance. It turned out that chance was in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers brought the two-time Tommy John patient aboard with hopes that he would give them some consistency as the club's fifth starter.
Capuano might not have even gotten the opportunity had young right-hander Rubby de la Rosa not needed Tommy John surgery himself near the end of last season.
Capuano, who didn't pitch in the Majors in 2008 or 2009 after his second elbow surgery, has flourished on the West Coast, racing out to an 8-2 start with a 2.87 ERA. He's not only provided ace-type numbers at the back end of the Dodgers' rotation, but he's earning legitimate All-Star hype.
"I couldn't be having more fun playing the game," Capuano said. "Since coming back from my second Tommy John surgery, both last year in New York and this year in L.A., I appreciate all of this, no doubt about it."
Peavy has echoed those same sentiments over the past few seasons after having an unprecedented surgery in 2010 that reattached a lat muscle in his throwing shoulder. This year, he's off to a 6-2 start and is just two 1-0 losses away from being undefeated.
"Coming through the injuries and the years I've had, there's nobody any more grateful for the opportunity to play baseball and grateful to be healthy," Peavy said. "Making your start every fifth day and feeling the way I feel, it's something I took for granted for eight years of a career. I can promise you I don't take a fifth day for granted and I feel very blessed."
While each player relishes the opportunity just to be healthy and anchored into a team's rotation at this point in his career, the rejuvenation on the mound has been a welcomed treat for each player, his club and the fans.
"If we go back to Spring Training ... there were a lot of question marks," Santana said. "'Could he be the same pitcher he used to be?' I don't know. And I still don't know. But one thing I can tell you is that every time I go out there, I'll compete. ... That's what I do."