MILWAUKEE — Nothing in Chris Narveson’s baseball career has ever come easy.
He’s fought his way through injury and 10 years of minor league baseball to keep the dream of a major-league career alive.
Just when the fruits of his labor were finally coming and Narveson was establishing himself in a big-league rotation, injury struck again. Now it’s back to work again trying to prove himself.
The left-hander tore his rotator cuff on April 15 in Atlanta in just his second start of the season. Now, after a long rehab process, Narveson is back and ready to go.
“It was tough,” Narveson said. “An injury at any time is really not good but at the beginning of the year is always the hardest because you end up sitting around and watching the games while you do your rehab and you’d rather be out there playing.”
A highly touted prospect in St. Louis’s system, Narveson’s first setback came in 2002 when he needed Tommy John surgery as a 20-year-old pitching in Single A. After pitching in the Futures Game in 2003, Narveson was traded to Colorado in 2004 and then to Boston in 2005.
He struggled when in Triple A, and Narveson was waived and claimed back by the Cardinals. Finally getting his call-up to the big leagues at the end of 2006, Narveson appeared to be on the verge of breaking through.
But then another setback struck. An injury in his left shoulder limited him to just 12 games in 2007 and the Cardinals eventually let him walk as a minor-league free agent.
The Brewers took a chance and after one year of struggles in Triple A, Narveson got another crack in the majors and performed well out of the bullpen and in spot starts at the end of the year. He won a job in Milwaukee’s bullpen in 2010 and eventually earned a spot in the rotation.
In 2011, Narveson became one of the best fifth starters in baseball. He was a valuable asset at the back of the Brewers’ rotation and helped the team win the division by making 28 starts with a 4.45 ERA. For the first time in his professional career, Narveson didn’t have to fight for his job in 2012. He was in the rotation and could focus on improving instead of proving himself during spring training. Of course, then came the torn rotator cuff in late April.
While many would have been devastated, Narveson knew he had to put his head down and grind through the long rehab process.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and it only made me work harder and make sure I was going to be ready come spring,” Narveson said. “Rehab is the biggest part of it; if you don’t do that right you aren’t going to be in a situation to be ready to go come spring.”
Narveson got to the point in his rehab where he began to throw to live hitters in November and was deemed ready to go. He then shut it down for five weeks before picking up his regular throwing routine again.
“It feels brand new,” Narveson said. “It’s been amazing. When you have it sometimes you kind of trick yourself and say, ‘Hey maybe I feel better than I really do’ but I can honestly say I don’t feel that now. I feel 100 percent.”
While it’s too early in the process to know for sure, Narveson feels his velocity has come back better than ever. Never a hard thrower, Narveson quite possibly could benefit in the velocity department with the shoulder fully repaired.
“It feels like its better,” Narveson said. “It just feels good coming out, so you know that there’s life. You can tell by the pop and the way things are coming out. I think that’s what makes you excited.”
While Brewers manager Ron Roenicke expressed a bit of doubt Narveson would be ready to fully compete for a spot in the rotation, both Narveson and Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash are confident the lefty can head into camp with no limitations.
For Narveson, there’s no time for limitations. He’s one of four pitchers competing for three spots in the rotation and the only one currently with health questions.
As for fighting for his job, well, he’s used to it. Narveson sees the rotation competition as a positive for the ballclub.
“It’s the process of making a name for yourself, for all of us,” Narveson said. “People are going to write us off because we have some young guys throwing but these guys have thrown better than a lot of the guys in the league. It’s one of those things where for us, we are excited because we are all going to push each other and it’s going to be a good competition.”
The taste of success is what’s different this time around. Narveson knows what it’s like – at least for a short time – to be an established big-league pitcher, not having to look over his shoulder wondering if one bad start will send him packing back to the minors.
Combine the taste of success with the feeling of getting through the long days of rehab, Narveson feels he’s ready to reclaim his spot and take the mound every five games for the Brewers.
“That’s huge,” Narveson said. “That’s what you want. You want to have that taste, to know I’ve been here and I can do this. The next test is when you have a little bit of adversity.
“Anytime you go through rehab, it’s just like pitching during the season and going through adversity. You are down and trying to stay mentally strong. Once you figure out how to approach it, you kind of take that atmosphere and go with it.”