Craig Stammen works through injury to make Washington Nationals' starting rotation

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; D02

VIERA, FLA. -- Craig Stammen grew up in North Star, Ohio, which has a population of 209. He went to high school in Versailles, the village 10 miles down Route 127. He played quarterback and shortstop and dreamed about playing sports 60 miles away at the University of Dayton. His father, Jeff, co-owned North Star Hardware & Implement Co. Jeff Stammen sold farm equipment, and Craig helped.

Tony Vittorio, the head coach at Dayton, wanted Stammen to play baseball there. Vittorio sat in their living room in North Star and told the Stammens that Craig was going to be drafted as a pitcher. Jeff Stammen told Vittorio, "You're nuts."

One week from Monday, barring a major surprise, Stammen will begin the season in the Washington Nationals' starting rotation, the apex of a career that started in small-town Ohio. Stammen earned his spot this spring after a four-month cameo last season, the most rewarding and challenging experience of his baseball life.

Stammen had always tried to imagine his first moments pitching in the majors, but he never included pitching with bone chips in his right elbow. He told almost no one about his injury; teammates only knew because his arm stiffened so much he walked with it to his side in an 'L.' Stammen's competitiveness, the ethic he developed in North Star, would not let him sit.

"He's a good ol' home-grown country boy," Vittorio said. "He grew up baling the hay and cutting the grass, that type of thing."

This winter, Vittorio called Stammen just to check in. Stammen, in his first offseason after pitching in the majors, was helping his father at his hardware store. "I love working," Vittorio recalled Stammen saying.

Grit is one explanation for how Stammen endured last season. His elbow started hurting in spring training, but Stammen thought little of the pain. He had never experienced arm trouble, and he attributed it to typical spring training soreness. When he reported to Class AAA Syracuse, the cold weather made it worse. By the time the Nationals called him up in late May, Stammen could not fully straighten or bend his arm. He walked with his arm stuck at an angle, as if wrapped in an imaginary cast. He swallowed a pain-relieving pill every morning and waited to feel better.

"It was probably more mentally draining," Stammen said. "It just got old really fast -- getting up every day, knowing your arm is kind of stuck like that."

Daily routines became constant reminders of how much his arm hurt. Stammen could not bend his arm far enough to reach the back of the right side of his mouth when he brushed his teeth. He could not reach far enough to change the station on his car radio, so he had to lurch forward to turn the knob. He shaved half of his face with his left hand. "I constantly had like a rash right here," Stammen said, rubbing the right side of his neck.

And still, he pitched every time his turn came. When Stammen arrived at Dayton, "Craig was probably overly competitive, where it worked maybe against him," Vittorio recalled. "We had to teach him to wind down."

Clearly, his injury last season was not going to stop him.

"He didn't tell many people about it," said Nationals starter John Lannan, one of Stammen's closest friends. "He just went out and did his thing. That shows a lot of character when you're not 100 percent and you're still going out there. Every fifth day, he did what he had to do. He knew this was his opportunity."

Stammen had surgery to remove the bone chips last fall, and he has shown this spring how good he can be when healthy. He struck out 7.0 batters per nine innings in his minor league career before last season, when his rate dipped below four. The pain didn't allow him to throw his sharp curve, and he lost two mph from his sinking fastball. Both returned this spring, and he has allowed five earned runs in 13 1/3 innings while striking out 10.

"He's a tough kid," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "He pitched not 100 percent on the mound and gutted through it and gave us quality starts."

The end of last season was "a relief," said Stammen, who started 19 games and finished 4-7 with a 5.11 ERA. The pain, and the weight of thinking about it, stopped. But he would change nothing. Stammen had an opportunity to pitch in the majors, and he didn't know if it would happen again.

"It's probably not the right answer, not what people want me to say," Stammen said. "But I don't think I would have done anything different. It's just my personality. I was able to get through it. I was able to handle it just fine. Not many people get a chance to pitch in the big leagues. For me, that might have been my only opportunity ever. I can go to my grave happy with how I did it. I think I would do the same thing: bone-headed approach."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company