Bucs' Gerut staying focused on rehab

Bucs' Gerut staying focused on rehab

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jody Gerut has discarded the knee brace he wore through Spring Training last season.

Its absence might be a signal that Gerut, with another knee surgery behind him, is back and ready to play baseball again. That's not necessarily the case -- not yet anyway.

"We're in the last thrust of it -- getting my body to supply the power instead of the treadmill," he says after his workout Friday. "It's still a pretty vulnerable state; you don't want to overheat it."

His words are those carved out of the hard world of real experience. Gerut tried to overheat a rehab before, and it got him nothing but more time in rehab.

So as his Pirates teammates run the field here, take live batting practice, stretch and chase fly balls under manager Jim Tracy's scrutiny, Gerut finds himself taking a slower pace to everything. What is rushing a rehab good for, after all?

Absolutely nothing, aside for more rehab.

He's looking at his return to play the way a chef might look at cooking a steak. Cook it 350 degrees, you'll end up with a nice steak; cook it at 400, you'll burn it; cook it at 300, you'll have a nice tender roast, eventually.

"But," he says, "the season doesn't start in October."

His point was made: He needs to go slowly, just not too slowly.

"I think we're going as fast as we can without putting it in danger," says Gerut, who sat out all of 2006 with an injured right knee. "At this stage, it's still vulnerable to an overheat, so I've got to be careful."

That's the only approach that makes sense, too. For Gerut's goal, of course, is to return to the player he was with the Cleveland Indians in 2003, his rookie season, when he emerged as one of the up-and-coming stars of the American League. Gerut batted .279, hit 22 homers and drove in 75 runs that year.

Since then, he's had a difficult time staying healthy. And he's gone from the 25-year-old outfielder who was one of the darlings of baseball to a 29-year-old outfielder who's trying to prove to the Pirates that he can reclaim his past glory.

The proving goes at a slow but steady pace. When he can get started doing that proving in earnest, Gerut can't say. He has no date marked on the calendar or no date fixed in his mind. He knows that, if he's not careful, the rehab range after going under the surgeon's scalpel can stretch into the next decade.

"So you've just got to listen to your body," he says. "Your body's got the last say, no matter what."

His body is telling him these days that he's not back to 100 percent. His body has its limits, which he isn't trying to reach. He can't run full speed yet, though he can cut directionally as easily as he needs to.

"Hitting and throwing are fine," he says, pausing before he continues, "which is nice. I'm able to do some baseball activity."

Even though he hasn't played in real games for more than a year, he shows no concern about how polished his skills will be, for he has not been away from the game nearly that long. Gerut has played baseball games in his mind, a strategy, he says, that helped him get through an earlier surgery in 2001.

Back then, he was with the Indians. He'd go to games and chart pitches from the press box.

"It kept your mind in the game," Gerut says. "By the end of the season, it felt like I'd played the season. That's kind of what I did this past season."

Staying in Florida this time, he watched the Devil Rays, and he did many of the same things he'd done when he was rehabbing in 2001. No, he wasn't playing the game, but he wasn't away from the game -- not in his mind.

Call it mind over matter, for that might be a good way to judge what Gerut did. But even he sees the whole mind-over-matter thing as a work in progress.

"The thing I don't have down yet in the mind over matter is that sometimes to get better you have to take your foot off the accelerator," he says. "That's the part I just don't have yet, you know. I may never have that."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.