Injury cloud over Black may be lifting

Flame-throwing reliever pain-free and dominant in spring

Injury cloud over Black may be lifting

PHOENIX -- Giants reliever Ray Black has careened off the fickle path from hurt to healthy too many times in his brief career. On his current attempt, however, he just might complete the journey standing upright.

The baseball gods blessed Black with the ability to throw his fastball routintely at 100 mph. He also possesses a curveball that hovers in the high 80 mph range. But anybody with such thunder in his arm needs a figurative lightning rod for physical protection, and Black never had that. Since the Giants selected Black in the seventh round of the 2011 MLB Draft, he has endured injuries almost constantly, preventing his progress from keeping pace with his ability.

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However, Black looks and feels fit this spring. He has made two scoreless one-inning appearances in Cactus League activity.

"It was almost one step forward, two steps back every time I seemed to be doing something in the rehab process," Black said Monday. "But I got to the point where the pain was limited. I was able to compete again, and once I got out on the mound, the pain went away, the adrenaline took over and the competition took over. That's where I am now."

More important, his stress-free motion indicates that he's finally fit for the long haul.

"I really like his delivery. It's smooth," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He doesn't put a lot of effort in it. Knock on wood, we keep him healthy."

Top Prospects: Black, SF

That endeavor has been fruitless so far.

Black needed Tommy John elbow surgery during his senior year at Coughlin (Pa.) High School. He tore his right meniscus during an offseason workout before his sophomore season at the University of Pittsburgh. Soon afterward, Black sustained a fractured right hand when he and a roommate were accosted in an attempted robbery.

The baseball diamond was scarcely safer for Black. Shoulder surgery forced him to sit out two seasons after being drafted. When he was finally able to pitch in 2014, he struck out 71 batters in 35 1/3 innings while dividing the season between Augusta and San Jose, the Giants' pair of Class A affiliates.

Giants catching prospect Aramis Garcia relishes working with Black. "Honestly, he's special. The way he pitches, it's really unbelievable. And it's a lot of fun to catch," Garcia said. "Whenever you see somebody that gifted on a baseball field, just to see what they do and getting first-hand to watch him pitch, it really is a great experience."

Black maintained his approximate 2-to-1 strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio last year by punching out 51 batters in 25 innings for San Jose. Unfortunately for him, his injury woes again were a familiar characteristic. He began the season on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle, then injured his biceps in late May.

Black attributed the lat injury to losing flexibility while gaining muscle. "Just because you get cleared to play usually doesn't mean you're 100 percent," Black said. "It took me a while to get to that point."

He's forever grateful to the Giants for their patience. "I honesstly believe that if I were drafted by a different organization, I wouldn't be where I am right now," said Black, 25.

Black proved he was physically whole by recording a 2.00 ERA in nine innings for Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League. True to form, he struck out 16 in nine innings.

Black has inoculated himself from further injury by surrounding himself with positive influences. "I had a lot of people supporting me," he said -- including his father, who provided a dash of tough love. Said Black, "My dad would remind me, 'You're welcome to come home and work in the fields if you want.' "

Black's religion also sustained him. Though he said that "I don't talk too much about it," he observed that his adversity "brought me closer to God."

For peer guidance, Black studies the pitching mechanics of other young, hard throwers such as Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich. He has recognized the simple yet essential fact that their momentum carries them directly toward home plate. By contrast, Black has had to cure himself of falling toward first base. He remains vigilant regarding his shoulder and elbow by maintaining a specialized exercise regimen for them. Black's dedication drove him to arrive in Scottsdale during the first week of January, more than a month before pitchers were due to report to camp, to intensify his training.

"I feel like I'm moving in the right direction for once," Black said. "Sometimes you get hurt and you're like, 'Oh, I'm going backwards again.' Some guys' careers are a steady incline and mine's been a roller-coaster ride, that's for sure. From where I started and where I've gotten to now, there's still a little bit to go, but I definiitely feel closer."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.