Lee, Harden, Quentin top Comebackers

Lee, Harden, Quentin top Comebackers

The Major League road more traveled is seldom smooth and clear. It is full of speed bumps, potholes -- and trap doors.

Every year, numerous players fall through them, for various reasons. Injury. Performance regression. Emotional bankruptcy.

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Some don't resurface, free-falling into private life. Others summon the drive and dedication that made them pro athletes in the first place, and author impressive returns.

Modern sports medicine has turned "comeback" into part of the routine. Players, particularly pitchers, regularly undergo get-well regimens they know will keep them shelved for sometimes more than a season, then enable them to return perhaps better than new.

Not coincidentally, the Comeback Player of the Year Award became the newest official entry in the display case when Major League Baseball formally launched it after the 2005 season.

According to the award's basic guidelines, the honor is bestowed upon a player in each league who "re-emerged on the baseball field" during the season.

For purposes of this preview, a collective nod to those who persevered and let inner faith light their paths, our interpretation is that means reclaiming prior stature -- whatever the source of the drag.

We present each league's top five candidates, in alphabetical order.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Justin Duchscherer, A's: Limited to 16 innings last season by right hip problems that eventually required surgery, the 30-year-old former reliever resurfaced as an eye-popping starter. The man who made 188 consecutive relief appearances from 2004-07 took a turn leading the league in ERA, and remained in contention for that title until that hip problem resurfaced in late August.

Cliff Lee, Indians: From 5-8, and barnstorming starts up and down Cleveland's farm system, to 21-2 and the favorite's role in the Cy Young Award race? Comebacks don't come bigger or more inspirationally than that. And it is a comeback in the truest sense of the word, considering the lefty had been 32-16 in 2005-06.

Carlos Quentin, White Sox: He was the D-backs' Golden Boy in '06, when he broke into The Show with four homers and nine RBIs in his first seven games. But last year, between a perceived lack of discipline at bat and a bum shoulder, Arizona soured on him and virtually gave away the current AL home run leader. Quentin recently fractured his right wrist and is trying to return before the end of the season.

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays: Four innings into his '07 season, his left elbow popped and he was a ligament-replacement patient. He has reclaimed his '05-'06 status as the game's premier southpaw closer, and most recently has been front-and-center in Toronto's late-season drive. The Jays are 25-3 in his last 28 appearances.

Ervin Santana, Angels: He wasn't able to get out of the fourth inning in seven of his 26 starts last season, when his struggles reached all the way down to Triple-A. In '08, he has gone seven-plus innings in 16 of his 29 starts, while shaving more than a run off his previous career ERA. But he definitely had a history to recapture -- witness his 16-8 record for his sophomore '06 campaign.

Honorable mention: Rocco Baldelli, Rays; Carl Pavano, Yankees; Juan Rivera, Angels.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Jody Gerut, Padres: His return from a three-year battle with a right knee injury has been one of San Diego's few bright spots. He was limited to 16 at-bats with the Indians in '05, and sat out both of the ensuing seasons. Now he is second on the Padres with a .297 average, again showing the power and clutch bat that had made him one of the American League's top rookies in '03.

Rich Harden, Cubs: He began his comeback from a three-year injury siege in Oakland, and, except for the occasional timeout, has continued it on Chicago's North Side. After various ailments -- back, shoulder, elbow -- limited him to a total of five wins in '06 and '07 combined, he already has 10 this season and his 23 starts are 10 more than he'd totaled in the past two seasons.

Gabe Kapler, Brewers: In a sport that has had many player-managers, the last being Pete Rose, Kapler is the first manager-then-player. He'd retired following the '06 season to manage in Boston's system -- which only convinced him that playing is more fun. And the ever-popular outfielder has made a smashing return, as Milwaukee's fourth outfielder putting up his best numbers (.301, eight homers, 38 RBIs) since '01. Kapler was recently diagnosed with a torn right latissimus muscle, but may try to play through the injury.

Chan Ho Park, Dodgers: His '07 Major League season consisted of one start for the Mets, in which he was shelled for seven runs over four innings, and he knocked around the Minors the rest of the time. Park has re-emerged with his original club -- he made his big league debut with the Dodgers in 1994 -- as a tireless setup guy, with an ERA of 2.95 in 46 games.

Kerry Wood, Cubs: Bowing to a litany of right arm problems, Wood, a long way from the tall Texan with the 20-strikeout game, has reinvented himself as a successful closer. He will approach his total number of appearances from '04-'07, and his 29 saves have freed Ryan Dempster to flourish in the rotation.

Honorable mention: Mike Lincoln, Reds; Fernando Tatis, Mets.

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