PHOENIX — For half of the last decade, this was Brandon Webb’s time of year.
If Webb was not the Cy Young Award favorite, he was in the conversation at crunch time. He won the award in 2006 and was runner-up the next two seasons, the best three-year run in the National League since Randy Johnson won four in a row. His 22 victories in 2008 are still the most in the NL in going on seven years.
Webb is 33 and game fit, and he still looks like he could bury a two-seam fastball under the bat of anyone who stood in. But he does not watch much baseball these days. He catches the occasional Diamondbacks game but mostly sticks to SportsCenter highlights, his days and nights occupied as a full-time dad for daughter Regan, 6, and son Austin, 3.
It is not hard to understand why. This could — should — still be his time.
“I’ll watch a game. A guy will be out there throwing and I will be like, ‘Man I should be able to be out there and do that,'” Webb said before the Diamondbacks’ first alumni game Saturday at Chase Field.
“That’s how I think.”
Webb has every right to think that way. Few pitchers have had the rug pulled out from under their careers as abruptly and unceremoniously as Webb, who was one of the top starters in the National League from his rookie season in 2003 until suffering a debilitating shoulder injury in spring training of 2009 that limited him to an Opening Day start that year.
“Brandon was such an important piece to our success on the field. He was the dependable ace for so long … when Webby was the scheduled starter, we would all say, ‘Well, that’s a win, who do we have going tomorrow?'” D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall said.
One minute, everything. The next, two shoulder surgeries, months of rest and rehabilitation, and four minor league rehab appearances in an abbreviated comeback in the Texas organization in 2011.
Webb could paper the walls of his Scottsdale home with the seemingly thousands of X-rays and MRIs he has received in the last four years. Classify and grade the plastic waiting-room chairs.
“That’s the hardest part,” Webb said candidly. “Being on top of the game for like three or four years in a row there and being one of the top pitchers in the game, and just immediately being done.”
His voice quavers on the last word.
“If I had come back in 2009 or 2010 … if I was gradually coming back and I just couldn’t get anybody out, that would have been easier to deal with. There was, like, no preparation for this. You can’t really do it. I don’t want to be done,” he said.
Webb had an anchor implanted in his rotator cuff and six stitches put in to close a torn labrum in the most recent surgery, which was performed in August 2011. Webb’s shoulder specialist, Dr. Keith Meister, put it in no uncertain terms: If Webb did not have the surgery, his career would be over. Even with the operation, returning to the mound would be a long shot.
Webb’s decision was easy. His right arm hurt every time he lifted it to brush his hair or swing a golf club or move to hold his kids high in the air. He got back on a throwing program earlier this year, and just like the old days, he played catch with his father, Philip, back in Kentucky, outside the house and on the mound at Ashland High School. He stopped throwing about two months ago, when his fastball was in the low 80 mph range and his recovery time looked long.
“All my rehab stuff was good. But that’s how it has always been. Everything has been good. I could test out right now and be just as strong as anybody, and I haven’t done anything in three or four months, shoulder-wise. The only thing I can’t do is throwing. The velocity never came back,” he said.
Webb was a workhorse, winning 87 games in six years and averaging 219 innings. After he struck out 10 Mets hitters in seven shutout innings in his first major league start in the first game of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium on April 27, 2003, Johnson — the second-game starter — approached him and said, “That’s a tough act to follow.”
Johnson called it. Webb won 70 games from 2005-08, relying on a sinking fastball that was so effective he could throw it on almost every pitch, although he perfected a curveball later in his career to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball. One day in San Francisco, the bullpen reported that Webb started the game with 49 straight sinkers. It may have been more, but they stopped counting. He shut out the Cardinals on one hit in his Cy Young season using 96 pitches. Catcher Chris Snyder said afterward that at least 90 of those were sinkers.
“He pitched a lot of innings, got a ton of ground balls and could strike guys out … that’s a nice combination,” then-general manager Josh Byrnes said. “I felt good about him pitching against any lineup in any ballpark.”
The feat that makes Webb most proud is his 42-inning scoreless streak in midsummer 2007 that ended with consecutive shutouts against the Dodgers, Nationals and Braves as the D-backs moved into the NL West lead. Webb gave up 23 hits and struck out 35 in that run.
“That was one of the coolest things,” Webb admitted.
Webb has not officially retired, and he still is thinking about giving it a go next spring.
“Maybe I’ll pick up a ball in the winter and it feels great. Who knows? I won’t do that (retire) yet. I haven’t totally shut it out. Mentally, I’m not ready. Physically, I might be,” he said.
If pitching doesn’t work out, he would be interested in joining the D-backs in an on-field capacity if they could find a spot for him. If his career is over, Webb has a lot of good times to remember.
“I got to do a lot of things in the time that I was here. Got to do it for a little bit longer than what some people do,” he said.
“I enjoyed the time and I’ll cherish those memories.”