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Winding Up for a New Pitch

Nats' Armas Is Healthy After Two Lost Seasons

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 16 -- There was enough pain that April day two years ago at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for Tony Armas Jr. to be sufficiently miserable. He had just allowed four home runs to the Cincinnati Reds, and the stellar work he had done -- beating Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day, throwing 17 consecutive scoreless innings after that -- seemed to evaporate, all in an afternoon.

But it was worse. After the shellacking, Armas went back to the clubhouse, and prepared to change. Problem: He tried to lift his arm. No response. The next day, an off day for Armas's Montreal Expos, he couldn't put a shirt on. Three days later he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. A month after that, he underwent surgery on his right shoulder. And just like that, as promising a start to a season as the Expos had seen since Pedro Martinez pitched in Montreal was -- poof! -- gone.

Washington's Tony Armas Jr., son of a former major league slugger, missed most of the 2003 season and struggled last year after injuring his right shoulder. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"His stuff was just so nasty," catcher Brian Schneider said. "Hitters were talking about it. When he's healthy, that's what he's like, and that's what we need -- because we know he can do it."

Wednesday afternoon, Armas plunged deep into the cushions of a couch at Space Coast Stadium and extended that long right arm across its back. He smiled broadly and easily, showing bright white teeth. In his first day at Washington Nationals spring training, the misery of the last two years -- a near-complete wash-out in 2003, a struggle to recover in 2004 -- appeared gone.

"I feel normal," he said. "I feel like I can do all my normal things." And he paused. "It's been so long since I could say that."

There is, of course, a difference between saying he is back and being back, but everyone associated with the Nationals is optimistic that Armas's progress over the winter will allow him to return to a prominent spot in the rotation. In fact, of the 28 pitchers in camp, there may be no more important arm than the one that betrayed Armas nearly two years ago.

"If he stays healthy," Manager Frank Robinson said, "he's the key to the rotation, I think. Because if the other guys are healthy, they're going to do what they're capable of doing. But Armas, to me, is capable of doing some outstanding things."

That's what seemed to be in the offing in those early days of 2003. Armas was traded by the Boston Red Sox, along with fellow right-hander Carl Pavano, for Martinez following the 1997 season. But in parts of four major league seasons prior to 2003, Armas struggled. He won his final four decisions in 2002 to finish 12-12, the only year he didn't have a losing record. He had never posted a full-season ERA under 4.00. He was viewed as an underachiever.

That's one reason the injury -- a torn right labrum -- so rocked him, and the Expos, in 2003. Before giving up those four homers to the Reds, he hadn't allowed a long ball in four previous starts. He struck out 23 and walked just eight in 31 innings. His confidence, he said, was unmatched.

"I felt like I could throw fastballs down the middle of the plate, and it didn't matter," Armas said. "They wouldn't hit them. That's how confident I was."

"It's almost like you could say, 'This guy is going to win 20 ballgames,' " Robinson said. "That's how good he was. That's the way he was throwing the ball."

The surgery, though, sent him back to his native Venezuela for a few weeks, then to Atlanta for rehabilitation. He missed the Expos' run at a playoff spot. He missed time developing on the mound. And when he arrived at spring training last season, he wasn't sure what to think. His arm felt okay, but what about in a game?

"It was tough," he said. "You feel good, but at the time, you have a lot of things going on in your mind. You can be throwing long toss, throwing easy, and it's fine. But how is it going to feel when you're up to 70, 80, 90 pitches? Unless you can get out on the mound, it's a different feeling. And I was unsure of how it would be."

But one thing he was sure of: He wanted to pitch. Never mind the surgery. Never mind what should have been a slow comeback.

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