Healthy Volquez could be a postseason key

Healthy Volquez could be a postseason key

CINCINNATI -- Pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery often provide better results in their second season back. The Reds and Edinson Volquez don't have the luxury of that timetable.

Not with the club's first postseason appearance in 15 years less than a week away.

"I've been working hard to be in the playoffs," said Volquez, who had the surgery on Aug. 3, 2009. "Everybody on the team has done the same thing. Those guys have been together the whole year, and I was able to get back for the second half of the season. I just did my best to help the team win."

Volquez returned to the Reds after the All-Star break, and in 12 starts since then he has demonstrated he's capable of being the same kind of pitcher won 17 games and made the All-Star team during his breakout 2008 season.

"I think what he's doing this year is amazing," Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "I don't remember the last time a pitcher came back in the middle of a season after Tommy John surgery and pitched really good, especially from a starting spot. It's not that easy. You could not ask him for more."

After Saturday's game, the Reds announced that the 27-year-old Volquez will start Game 1 for the Reds in the National League Division Series.

Volquez is the one true power pitcher among the Cincinnati rotation candidates and therefore could be the biggest X-factor the Reds have heading into October. While he is making a comeback from a major surgery, his body doesn't have many innings logged this season, while other pitchers are seeking their second and third winds.

"I think I can do a very good job," Volquez said. "I've been to the playoffs five years in a row in the Dominican. I know what it is. There are a lot of emotions. It's going to be crazy."

Volquez is 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA, 35 walks and 67 strikeouts over 62 2/3 innings. There were times, such as his one-run, nine-strikeout season debut vs. Colorado, that his stuff was spectacular. In his second start, he surrendered six runs to the Nationals, followed by three straight outings where he allowed one run. Then there were two starts in late August where he got clobbered for 10 runs over a total of 5 1/3 innings. In other words, it was a roller coaster ride as he struggled to command his pitches after a year away.

The Reds, amid a tense pennant race with the Cardinals, could ill-afford Volquez's inconsistencies. He was sent to Class A Dayton for two starts in September to fine-tune his mechanics while away from the heat of a contending team.

"There was a real strong feeling that Volky was tipping his pitches when his hands were set higher," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We dropped his hands down and it helped in two ways: He's not tipping pitches, No. 1. No. 2, it allows his timing to get his hands in the throwing position.

"It affects his timing in a positive way. When he was scattered with his command, his arm wasn't ready to throw the ball when it needed to be. He couldn't stay on top of the ball."

In four starts since his recall from Dayton, Volquez was 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA. He had eight walks and 31 strikeouts. His power-armed velocity regularly reached the 95-96 mph range.

Volquez's best start of the season was two outings ago, on Sept. 21 at Milwaukee. He tied a career high with eight innings pitched, allowing one run, four hits and four walks with six strikeouts. One pleasant surprise was 16 ground-ball outs, including four double plays.

"I think his stuff is better," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said after that game. "Today, he was throwing hard and his changeup was just as good as ever."

"There's no question that was a shutdown game," Price said. "His command was low in the strike zone. He had movement on the fastball and changeup. It encouraged a lot of ground balls in that game. It would be nice to see that as a trend."

On Tuesday, Volquez gave up two second-inning runs to the Astros and worked a six-inning no-decision. Although not as consistently effective as he was vs. the Brewers, he walked only one and struck out eight.

A sharp Volquez is very much the weapon the Reds want to match up with some of the stellar starting pitching they are likely to encounter in the postseason.

"It's what we hoped for when he got called back up," Reds manager Dusty Baker said on Wednesday. "He had to go backwards in order to come forward, which happens, too. He's strong. He's really strong."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.