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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Foreign hurlers face pivotal season after recovering from injuries
Seth Greisinger walked off the field at Tokyo Dome on Thursday looking relaxed and at ease. At the same time, Alex Graman had his glove tucked under his arm as he chatted with a reporter and teammate Dee Brown in front of the visitors' dugout.
The two pitchers looked carefree and easygoing prior to Greisinger's Yomiuri Giants taking on Graman's Seibu Lions in a preseason game.
Neither showed any outward signs that this could be a pivotal year as they both work their way back from injuries.
Elbow issues have nagged Greisinger for much of the last two seasons. He missed the 2009 postseason, after a solid regular season campaign, and made only six appearances in 2010. For Graman, it's been a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined for the most part since having surgery in 2009. The reliever made just seven appearances last year.
Now both find themselves on the cusp of a new season, with a chance to prove themselves all over again.
"It feels fine, everything feels good," Greisinger said of his elbow on Thursday, rotating his arm slightly.
His goals this year are to show the Giants his injury woes are behind him, win a spot in the rotation and regain the form that made him one of the NPB's top pitchers.
Greisinger came to Japan in 2007 after a two-year stint in the Korea Baseball Organization. He led the Central League in wins in his first season, recording 16 for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, then repeated the feat with 17 wins for the city's more glamorous outfit in 2008.
He put up good numbers before getting hurt in 2009, finishing 13-6, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.
That's the type of production the Giants lacked last year, as their patchwork rotation sputtered at times. Bringing a healthy Greisinger back into the mix would help solidify Yomiuri's rotation in what should be a tight race for the CL title.
Graman, meanwhile, hopes to reclaim a place in the Seibu bullpen after suffering a rotator cuff injury in 2009. Prior to the injury, he had been one of the Lions' top relievers, earning the closer's job in 2008 and saving 31 games while playing a role in the team's Japan Series run that season.
After missing most of 2009 and 2010, Graman is still inching his way back into the fold as he works out the kinks.
"Working your way back from shoulder surgery is a long process," Graman said. "You have to deal with things like finding the right arm slot. I'm struggling with that right now."
Part of the challenge, for any pitcher, is learning how to pitch again after what is usually long periods of inactivity while recovering.
"I'm working on my curve and a cutter," Graman said. "I'm trying to just add something because I don't have the velocity to sneak it past them (hitters) yet. But it's spring, it's normal. It's early."
Bouncing back from an arm or shoulder injury is an arduous process. For every hurler who regains his pre-surgery form, there are others who never make it back.
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada underwent elbow surgery in 2007 (to remove bone chips) then missed the beginning of the 2008 season while recovering. He then missed a chunk of time during a largely ineffective 2009 campaign due to more elbow issues.
He was back to his old self in 2010, winning the Pacific League MVP and Sawamura Awards after going 17-8 with a 3.14 ERA, and 1.18 WHIP.
Wada's teammate, Kazumi Saito, is a more cautionary tale.
From 2003-2006, Saito was among the most dominant pitchers in Japan, despite his horrible 2004 season.
During that span, he was 64-16 with a 3.22 ERA, won the Sawamura Award twice ('03 and '06), helped lead the Hawks to the 2003 Japan Series title and posted a 20-win season.
Shoulder injuries shelved him early in 2005 — though he still finished 16-1 — and plagued him throughout 2007 before robbing him of the entire 2008, '09 and '10 campaigns.
Saito still hasn't made it back, opting to "retire" and become a Hawks coach this season, leaving the door open for a future return.
Greisinger and Graman are hoping to follow in Wada's footsteps as they continue their own comebacks. They've each worked their way back onto the field this spring. Now, with the season drawing near, the hard part begins.