Twist of fate leads to Pestano fighting for bullpen spot
Reliever looks to leave mechanical problems, elbow injuries behind
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Vinnie Pestano's right elbow has given him fits for parts of the past two seasons. It was not until last year that the discomfort became too much to take and wound up throwing a wrench into his summer and wrecked his role in the bullpen.
The twist of a doorknob served as a cruel twist of fate.
On the morning of April 29, one day after a rough outing against the Royals, Pestano opened the door to a bathroom and felt a shot of pain on the outside of his elbow. He knew right away that it was unrelated to the area repaired with Tommy John surgery years ago. The pitcher also knew immediately, however, that it was a problem.
"My arm kind of locked up," Pestano said. "I was like, 'All right. That's new.'"
It turned Pestano's season upside down.
Pestano landed on the disabled list, devolved into a mechanical mess when he returned and did all he could to survive on the mound until being demoted to Triple-A Columbus by the end of July. Cleveland's former setup man is now fighting for a place in a bullpen that once called him a cornerstone. Pestano has certainly appeared up to the challenge this spring.
While Pestano's body of work in Cactus League play is small, what he has done on the mound in games and during workouts is not. By all accounts, the right-hander looks to have made a big turnaround in the aftermath of last season's turbulence. If that holds true through the end of camp, and continues to be the case this season, the Indians would be thrilled.
"It'd be huge," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "We'd probably have one of the better bullpens in the Major Leagues if Vinnie is the old Vinnie again. That'd be really nice to see. We'd have four guys we feel at the back of the 'pen that can pitch in leverage situations on any given night. That'd be really nice."
The other three relievers Callaway referred to include new closer John Axford and setup men Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. Cleveland parted ways with former closer Chris Perez this past winter, creating a hole that Pestano once seemed destined to fill. When Pestano's struggles last year forced him out of the eighth inning and, ultimately, out of the bullpen, Allen and Shaw picked up the slack for the Tribe.
As disappointed as Pestano was in his personal performance last season, he was happy that other arms were able to keep Cleveland's bullpen strong enough to help fuel the team's postseason run. That is one reason why Pestano feels, especially if he can contribute similarly to previous years, the Tribe's relief corps has strong potential.
"That's going to be the best part about this 'pen," Pestano said. "Guys are going to be able to pick each other up. ... Regardless of how the innings shake down and who's throwing where, we've got a lot of guys capable of going out and getting outs."
Through six Cactus League appearances this spring, the 29-year-old Pestano has allowed one run on just two hits with five strikeouts and two walks. The righty had been clocked around 90-92 mph, according to Callaway, and has shown the kind of movement with his pitches that helped him overpower and confound hitters in the past.
Pestano's bullpen 'mates have been excited by what they have seen, too.
"I think everybody has been encouraged," Allen said. "Guys are taking the same swings that you used to see. Swinging through a fastball away. Getting blown up on a heater in. Taking that backdoor slider for a freeze strike three or strike two. He's getting quick outs. Throwing a ton of strikes. The ball's got life."
Pestano said the most important thing right now is the fact that he feels comfortable and confident on the mound again.
Last year, the right-hander lost the feel to the point that he was searching for mechanical answers that did not exist. He tinkered and toyed with his delivery often, and lost sight of what made him so successful in the 2011-12 seasons, when he had a 2.45 ERA and 160 strikeouts across 132 innings as the primary eighth-inning arm.
In 37 games last year, Pestano posted career worsts in ERA (4.08) and WHIP (1.64) in 35 1/3 innings.
"We tried and tried and tried," Pestano said. "We tried looking at videos, tried drills, tried whatever. We just couldn't find it. It was like I had just forgotten how to throw a baseball. That was probably the most discouraging thing, because you try to go out there and you try to compete. Your mind is telling you that you're the same person, but you dont feel like it.
"That was one of the hardest things last year, going out there day after day and trying to remember how you used to throw a baseball. I just couldn't snap out of it."
Pestano said the outer elbow discomfort was an issue from Spring Training on in 2012, when he set Cleveland's single-season mark with 36 holds (for a team that lost 94 games). The soreness flared again after Pestano pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last spring, and persisted into April and posed a problem throughout last year.
Knock on wood -- Pestano did that while discussing the topic, rapping his knuckles on the inside of his locker -- the pain has not come up again this spring.
"So far, so good," he said. "It hasn't been an issue at all. I think now that I've kind of found my arm slot and I am throwing back to where I was, hopefully it won't be an issue. Maybe it was an issue caused by bad mechanics and things like that."
For the sake of their bullpen, the Indians are certainly hoping that is the case.
"It's hard not to pull for him," Indians manager Terry Francona said, "with where he was a couple years ago and how much he meant to the Indians. You can tell he worked really hard. He came in with a lot to prove and he's certainly doing that."