The footsteps are growing louder. John Smoltz is getting closer to Fenway Park, and with each outing of his rehab assignment in the Red Sox' minor-league system, interest in the future Hall of Famer grows. That will remain the case with the 42-year-old's scheduled start on Friday in Pawtucket, when he will face Triple-A hitters for the first time in his comeback from surgery last June.
Clearly, the return of Smoltz has enormous implications for the Sox. He will influence the Sox both through what he does on the mound and, by adding to a pitching surplus, what he enables the team to do off of it.
Even so, one can make the case that his appearance in Pawtucket is not the most significant in the Red Sox organization this weekend. Instead, that honor may go to left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone, who on Saturday will pitch in Single-A Greenville, who will start for a minor-league club for the first time in more than 13 months.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am just to be back playing with a team again and moving forward in my career,” Hagadone said by phone on Thursday. “It was a long process. I’m glad it’s over.”
The Sox took Hagadone as their top choice in the 2007 draft, making him a sandwich pick selection (55th overall) with a pick they gleaned when the Reds signed Alex Gonzalez as a free agent. The 23-year-old Hagadone was nothing short of brilliant in his professional unveiling.
After a rough first outing for Lowell, he turned in 33 straight innings without permitting an unearned run for Lowell in ’07 and then in 10 innings with Greenville in 2008. In the process, he flashed a fastball that reached 98 mph, a devastating slider and a changeup that was getting swings and misses.
However, in his third start of the 2008 campaign, Hagadone suffered a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. He could not undergo Tommy John surgery until last June due to an infection.
The rehab process was long and, at times, unrelenting. Yet Hagadone was equally relentless.
Sox farm director Mike Hazen marveled at the pitcher’s work ethic during his recovery, suggesting that Hagadone “crushed his rehab. He’s worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Even so, the pitcher admits that the boredom was immense. He woke up every day at 6:30 a.m. to begin his rehab work. Aside from the occasional trip to the beach, there were few diversions in Fort Myers.
Hagadone recalled that he and fellow Tommy John rehabber Drake Britton were so starved for entertainment that they would watch full seasons of Entourage in a single day.
“I didn’t do a whole lot, honestly,” he said. “I’ve watched more TV in the last year than I have, probably, my entire life.”
But through the ennui, the motivation remained clear. While Hagadone had little to do away from his rehab, he invested himself fully in his efforts to get back to the mound with a singular goal in mind.
“I was always thinking about how I wanted to get the same stuff back that I had before I got hurt,” said Hagadone. “Just worrying about getting my stuff back, getting all my pitches back to the level they were, was really what got me going the most. I don’t want to come back with anything less.”
Since Hagadone started throwing off a mound on January 6, there have been times when he wondered whether that goal could be accomplished. But at the end of April, he made a one-inning appearance in an extended spring training game that proved eye-opening.
His first activity against another team (the Rays’ extended spring squad was the opponent that day) was a revelation.
“My stuff came back like I wanted it to faster than I expected. That’s when I had a really good indication that I’d be back to normal,” said Hagadone, who touched 96 mph that day. “I feel like at times they’re just as good as they were. They’re not always as consistent yet, but it’s definitely close. I’m confident that eventually, this year, they’ll be back, I’ll be back the same as I was before.”
The pitcher’s fastball velocity has been anywhere from 91-96 mph in extended spring training in Fort Myers. His slider and change have been terrifically sharp at times, while on some days, he’s had to search for the feel of the pitches. Nonetheless, all signs have been promising, and now, Hagadone will get to test his stuff against a higher caliber of competition in Greenville.
According to Hazen, the hope is that he will throw somewhere in the vicinity of two innings and 30-35 pitches. Going forward this year, Hagadone will likely remain under wraps.
“He probably won’t progress too much more (in workload) this summer,” said Hazen. “We just want to keep him healthy, keep him strong. He's done really well to this point. His stuff has been really good.”
Hagadone isn’t going to fight those limits. One of the lessons he’s learned from the rehab process is to be better about remaining attuned to how his body feels, and scaling back his work accordingly rather than trying to pitch at max effort no matter how he feels.
As such, for the rest of this year, he is content to observe whatever limits the Red Sox impose upon him, mindful of the greater good that is now – for the first time in more than 13 months – in sight.
“I know that I’m on a restriction for a good reason. That’s fine with me. I just want to do as well as I can with the innings they give me,” said Hagadone. “I just want to throw as well as I can.”