Duchscherer puts in work on A's day off

Duchscherer puts in work on A's day off

PHOENIX -- Seven days before their departure for Japan and a two-game, season-opening series against the defending world champion Red Sox in Tokyo, most of the A's got to take Thursday off to gear up for the final week of what catcher Rob Bowen called "the longest short Spring Training ever."

Oakland's players got their final day of freedom for the spring, and reliever Kiko Calero, for instance, spent part of his afternoon alternately dog-paddling around and floating on his back in the pool at the team hotel.

One of Calero's former bullpen buddies, however, spent part of his afternoon working up a sweat, and it wasn't on one of the area's many posh golf courses.

Righty Justin Duchscherer, a former standout Minor League starter turned Major League All-Star setup man who is transitioning back into a starting role for the new-look A's, put in four innings of work in a Triple-A game against the visiting Angels at Papago Park.

Actually, Duchscherer pitched so well and efficiently, he might not have worked up a sweat at all were it not for the desert heat that prompted A's manager Bob Geren, pitching coach Curt Young and bullpen coach Ron Romanick -- all out of uniform and casually attired -- to take in the outing protected by the shade of a canopy perched atop the sun-seared concrete stands.

While throwing first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 14 batters he faced, 12 of the 13 called, Duchscherer -- "Duke," as he's more commonly known -- gave up two hits, struck out five and set the side down in order in three of his four shutout frames.

The only trouble he encountered came when he gave up consecutive singles to open the second inning, struck out the next two batters, and loaded the bases by hitting a batter.

After wiggling out of the jam, Duchscherer got a quick visit in the dugout from Young, who encouraged him to start throwing inside more. Thereafter, Duchscherer didn't allow a baserunner, and when he got the final out of the third inning with an up-and-in fastball that was popped up and caught in foul ground behind third base, Geren playfully elbowed Young and said, "Attaboy, Cy."

Duchscherer, who turned 30 in November, five months after surgery on his right hip ended his 2007 season, wasn't about to do cartwheels over carving his way through a lineup of prospects. But his 62-pitch effort certainly represented another sign that his recovery from the surgery and his return to the routine of being a starter are going extremely well.

"The hip's not even an issue," he said. "After I pitched in a game for the first time down here and realized I could push off without holding back, I haven't even thought about it."

Asked if, after serving as one of Oakland's top relievers for four seasons, starting again was akin to riding a bike, he leaned back on the stool in front of his temporary locker in the near-empty clubhouse at the organization's multi-field Minor League complex and broke into a subtle smile that suggested a mix of satisfaction and tempered enthusiasm.

"I'm not going to say that until I'm out there going a six, seven, eight strong innings against big league lineups and taking my regular turns," he said. "But I've been very pleased with the transition, absolutely."

For Duchscherer, an eighth-round Draft pick of the Red Sox in 1996 who was traded to the Rangers organization in 2001 and traded to Oakland a year later, getting a shot at regularly starting for the A's is something for which he's hoped since making his big league debut with the club late in the 2003 season.

That was the year he went 14-2 with a 3.25 ERA as a starter for Triple-A Sacramento, earning Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors. And a day after being called up to Oakland on Sept. 8, he made the kind of debut that seemed to be ripped straight from a storybook.

While his first child, Evan, was entering the world in a New Jersey hospital, Duchscherer was throwing seven shutout innings in Oakland to beat the Angels.

Evan will turn 5 years old in September, and since he was born, Daddy Duke has appeared in 197 games for the A's. But only three of them were starts, all in 2003, and he's nothing short of thrilled with returning to the role he most loves.

"The huge part of relieving that bothered me was not knowing when you're going to pitch," he said. "You have to assume you're going to pitch just about every day, and you usually don't know exactly what inning they're going to need you if you do pitch. That part of it drove me crazy.

"That's why I have so much respect for the guys who handle it so well for long periods of time."

Duchscherer handled it well, too; he posted ERAs of 3.27, 2.21 and 2.91 in 2004, 2005 and 2006 while working in a total of 166 games over that span, and he was Oakland's lone representative on the 2005 American League All-Star team.

But the unpredictability, stress, and lack of routine that come with working out of the bullpen are what Duchscherer said he believes led to a series of repetitive-use injuries such as elbow tendinitis, which cost him 42 games on the disabled list in 2006, an occasionally cranky back, and the strained right hip that limited him to 17 appearances last season.

So when Geren called him in November to ask if he was interested in starting again, Duchscherer didn't hesitate to answer.

"I said I'd love to," Duchscherer said. "He said he couldn't guarantee anything at the time, but he told me it was an idea they were kicking around. He's always known I'd rather start."

A month later, Duchscherer said, his agent got a call from A's assistant general manager David Forst. Duke was indeed getting a shot at claiming a spot in the rotation, and that call red-lined his excitement about 2008 and beyond.

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"In my opinion, the routine -- if you can even call it that -- of the bullpen takes a toll on you mentally and physically," Duchscherer explained. "The mental part, I think I did pretty well with. But physically, there's a huge difference between starting and relieving in terms of just letting your body recover.

"Every pitcher has aches and pains, right? Well, if you're a starter, you have four full days to address it. But if something's barking as a reliever, you might have less than a day before the team needs you again, and unless it's a serious injury, you just go out there and deal with it.

"I really think starting is going to help me stay healthier, so this is great for me."

It could end up being great for his bank account, too. When it comes to pitchers' paychecks, the starters and closers get a lot more glue than even the best of setup men, and Duchscherer tactfully admitted that it's something to which he's given some thought.

"I'm not gonna lie and say the opportunity to make more money never crossed my mind," he said. "I mean, when you're in the big leagues, you're obviously making good money, and I'd never complain about that. But I do have a 4-year-old son, and as an athlete you have a pretty small window of time to make this kind of money, so yeah, I've thought about it.

"But me going back to starting, it isn't about money at all. It's about having the comfort of a set routine that lets me take care of my body, stay off the DL and, hopefully, be a successful part a team that I think might surprise some people this year."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.