By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 12:38 AM
VIERA, FLA. - From the moment his right hip started aching last spring until now, pretty much everything changed for Ross Detwiler.
He arrived at spring training last February as a likely member of the Washington Nationals' rotation and a promising piece of their future. His confidence was still surging from the previous September, the best month of his pitching life. Progress in his career could still be measured with a straight line.
Detwiler reported to spring training this month with no obvious conclusion ahead. The Nationals want him to prove his health and his efficacy. His most recent baseball memory, the one he can't shake, includes four home runs roaring into the stands behind him. The next step in his career is anyone's guess.
Every spring training needs a sleeper, and Detwiler might as well be it for the Nationals. He could wind up in Class AAA Syracuse. He might land in the bullpen. But if he harnesses the potential that made him the sixth overall draft pick in 2007, if he recaptures the form that made him a legitimate major leaguer at the end of 2009, Detwiler could turn himself from a long shot to make the Nationals' rotation to a serious contender to challenge Tom Gorzelanny for the fifth spot.
On Tuesday, Detwiler rifled pitches in a bullpen session and felt something he hadn't for a long time on a pitcher's mound: comfort.
Even after he returned from hip surgery last year, he never felt like himself. He pitched with the injury in the back of his head, and it affected his technique.
Detwiler shortened his stride and threw more with his upper body than his legs and torso. He "crossed over" during his delivery, brining his right leg in front of his left leg rather than straight back and straight forward. Once those tweaks happened, the rest of his motion unraveled.
"I'm really trying to get back to the mechanics I once had that I feel like I've kind of gotten away from," Detwiler said. "I had to do a few things subconsciously. That stuff catches up with you. If you're not used to doing something, just the tiniest little detail, you'll feel that, and it will throw everything else off."
When Detwiler returned from hip surgery in July, the miserable months he spent recovering from his surgery never left his mind. Detwiler realizes now that he held back during starts, not wanting to re-injure himself. He hated the time he spent rehabbing in Florida, away from anything resembling actual baseball.
"I just didn't want to get hurt again," Detwiler said. "I didn't want to have to go on the DL and have to sit down in Florida for a couple months and just watch the team on the TV. That was the worst experience I've ever been through.
"I didn't want to go back on the DL. I'm sure I would have been better off just going out there and throwing like I used to throw."
Detwiler tries not to think about last season anymore. He focuses more on September and October 2009, the last time he was healthy in the majors. He allowed five earned runs in 212/3 innings in his final four starts of the season, and the Nationals won three of those starts. He threw easy, not forcing anything. "I revisit that a lot," he said.
There is one part of 2010 that he can't shed. On Sept. 29, against the Philadelphia Phillies, Detwiler made the final start of his season. He faced 23 batters. Nine of them reached base, seven scored and four mashed home runs. He had never given up four home runs in a game before.
"I try not to, but it pops into my head," Detwiler said. "That was the last experience I had before the offseason. So I got to think about that for three months."
This offseason, Detwiler focused on getting back the mechanics he used in 2009. He concentrates on deriving power from his legs and remaining in line during his motion. He lengthened his stride back to what it should be. Mostly, he feels like himself again.
After last year ended, Detwiler received therapy at the Sports Enhancement Group complex in St. Louis, where he lives in the offseason. Several professional athletes in St. Louis, mostly players from the Rams and Blues, trained there, and Detwiler decided he would, too. He gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he said, mostly in his legs.
"I already feel the difference," Detwiler said.
His newfound health and his offseason improvement has provided Detwiler a sense of optimism this spring. That much is certain. The rest will have to wait. "I'm really excited," he said. "We'll see where things go from here."