Madson excited for comeback opportunity with Royals

Reliever determined to prove he can still pitch in Majors after missing three seasons

Madson excited for comeback opportunity with Royals

Ryan Madson is talking 95 mph about a fastball that's back up to 93. He's explaining how much fun it is to not have to explain anything at all.

The 34-year-old reliever, recently signed to a Minor League deal by the Royals, sets the first scene in early February 2014. Madson, who starred in the setup role for the World Series champion Phillies in 2008 and assumed their closer role three years later, hadn't pitched in a Major League game since a breakout 32-save 2011 season because of Tommy John elbow surgery and its aftermath of pain that wouldn't go away. But here he was on a shiny desert ballfield, knowing he'd finally gotten it back.

The lost 2012 and '13 seasons, flameouts for the Reds and Angels in which he'd come so close to returning only to be shelved in agony once again, were over. Madson had spent the summer and fall of 2013 at a place called EVO UltraFit in Phoenix, where his new program stressed leg strength, put him onto exercises he'd never tried, threw 20 extra pounds onto his 6-foot-6 frame and seemed to not be very concerned about his right elbow.

Now Madson was ready, and he was sweating out another pain-free bullpen session before at least 20 scouts. He was told there were Minor League offers at the ready. There might have been a big league offer or two. Madson threw great. He felt great. His former Phillies teammate, Pat Burrell, was there scouting for the Giants and told him he looked as good as ever. Someone got him topping out at 93 mph. The changeup looked like the Madson changeup of old, the one that advanced statistics site Fangraphs.com rated as the best singular pitch in all of baseball in 2008.

Video: Madson's five-out save

Madson walked off the mound that day, thought about it, and made his decision.

"I didn't want to pitch," Madson said. "I wanted to go back home."

* * * *

Here's the next scene: Madson's backyard in Temecula, Calif., in early December, just over a month ago. Madson had been enjoying the time with his wife, Sarah, and their five children. They were a big part of him sitting out 2014 when he could have pressed on, but so was the toll of the long grind to get healthy again. Three years of platelet-rich plasma injections, consultations with Dr. James Andrews and countless others, the recurring solitude of rehab, the seemingly endless crush of setbacks and that pain right inside the elbow that kept flaring up.

"I was drained emotionally from the battle," Madson said. "Just always asking, 'Why aren't I good? Why can't I play?'"

So Madson was home, working with kids. The youngest is 9, the oldest is Johnny, a 17-year-old high school pitcher. They were atop an artificial turf mound on concrete and Madson was showing Johnny how to use his legs. He was leading them through rigorous wall squats and other exercises he'd toiled through in Arizona. Madson was watching these youngsters watch his now-effortless delivery, the ball coming out of his hand hot again. He was showing them what he learned at EVO UltraFit about how leg strength leads to arm preservation.

"I was thinking, 'This is what they all want,'" Madson said. "'And I've still got it. I can't let it go to waste.'"

The decision was made. It was time to get back on the mound.

* * * *

The Royals might not know exactly what they're getting, but they're well aware of who they're getting in Madson.

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore knew all about how rare of a talent Madson was before the injury and setbacks. Moore knew that players who are as successful on the field as Madson was are built differently, with a special mindset, a mental advantage. This toughness and confidence stand out when a guy faces this type of adversity.

Video: Madson saves it

Plus Madson is an engaging, optimistic person who's easy to root for. Former Phillies teammate Jamie Moyer, who somehow finagled 269 big league wins out of a fastball that hardly cracked the low 80s and pitched until he was 49, knows what it takes to fight back and smiled when he saw the news of Madson's Kansas City signing.

"He was a great teammate who knew how to work but had fun in the clubhouse," Moyer said. "He was always very dedicated to his craft."

Raul Ibanez, who also played with Madson in Philadelphia and was a member of the American League champion Royals last year, gave Moore an enthusiastic thumbs-up when asked for his thoughts on the reliever.

And former Phillies scout and current Royals special assistant Jim Fregosi Jr. has been a huge fan of Madson's for years and got the signing and invitation to Spring Training all the way to Moore's desk.

Now Madson will show up in Surprise, Ariz., in mid-February and try to prove himself one more time.

Madson said he can't wait.

* * * *

The next scene? No one knows how it'll play out, and that's the fun part for Madson. He knows the Royals had the best bullpen in the AL last year and that it's a tough group to crack. He knows how quickly injuries can strike, forcing teams to scramble for backup plans. And he knows another thing.

"I know that my expectations are to pitch in the big leagues again," he said. "I feel very confident. I don't foresee anything stopping me. I want to get back to where I was in 2011, and the only thing in the way of that is just hard work."

Video: Phillies clinch NL East

Madson said he's refreshed. The last year was the first one in which he didn't play any baseball since he was 9 years old. The itch is back.

"I want to show people that I still have it, and show myself as well," Madson said.

"I have the heart again."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.