LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Tommy Hanson waited seven months to pitch again in a game, and he’ll wait a little longer to pitch in dry weather and get through the second inning.
The right-hander was charged with two hits, three runs (two earned) and one walk and left without recording an out in the second inning of the Braves’ split-squad game against Toronto at Champion Stadium.
“Obviously my command was a little bit off, but my body felt really good and I made some good pitches,” said Hanson, who was replaced during a 77-minute rain delay in the top of the second inning, shortly after giving up a two-run homer by Jeff Mathis.
The game was called with the Braves trailing 3-1 in the bottom the second, during the third rain delay of the day. In their other split-squad game against the Blue Jays at Dunedin, the Braves lost 9-5 to drop their spring-training record to a majors-worst 1-9.
“At times I just wasn’t as consistent as I need to be,” said Hanson, pitching for the first time since Aug. 6 and using his revamped delivery for the first time in a game situation. “It’s my first game and my body felt good, so that was a key for me.”
The 6-foot-6 redhead missed the final eight weeks of the 2011 season with an undersurface rotator cuff tear in his pitching shoulder, then missed the first 10 days of spring training recovering from a concussion he got in a one-car accident while driving to the ballpark on the morning of the first workout in Florida.
Hanson changed his delivery over the winter, cleaning up some of the pause and funky arm action in an effort to reduce the stress on his elbow and shoulder.
“It was a tough day to pitch,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Of all the pitches he threw, I think he only had a handful where the ball was actually dry. So just getting him out there was good enough. We won’t worry about the boxscore.”
Hanson still has a slight pause at the beginning of his throwing motion from his windup, but not the radical hitch he had previously, when he’d pause at shoulder level and sling the ball without utilizing his legs for power.
One byproduct of the shortened motion is a quicker time to the plate from his stretch delivery when runners are on base. Hanson allowed more stolen bases (63) in the past two seasons than any major league pitcher.
Gonzalez said it was 1.35-1.4 seconds to the plate when Hanson pitched from the stretch Sunday, compared to an alarmingly slow 1.7-1.8 previously.
“You eliminate the mediocre base stealers when you go 1.3-1.4,” Gonzalez said. “The guys like [Jose] Reyes and Michael Bourn, top-tier base stealers, that time is still a go for them. But you eliminate a lot of the average baserunners.”
Catcher David Ross agreed it was difficult to assess much else about Hanson’s performance because of rain. The game was delayed 59 minutes before the first pitch, and rain resumed in the first inning and worsened in the second.
“You can’t really get a good judge [from the game] in that weather, but his bullpen was really good,” Ross said. “Slider was sharp, fastball was jumping out of his hand. I saw on the radar gun where he hit 91 [mph] early. I don’t look at that much, but…
“I called a lot of fastballs because you can’t even grip a slider, much less throw it with some conviction [when it’s that wet],” Ross said. “He looked good in the bullpen [warming up, when it wasn’t raining]. It’s hard to perform in those kind of conditions.”
Several scouts watching the game said they were surprised by how little difference there was in Hanson’s windup, after reading about changes he’d made in his delivery.
Asked about the changes in Hanson’s mechanics, Ross said it was more noticeable from the stretch than the windup.
“I told him when that one guy got on and he threw that first-pitch fastball, that got on me and the hitter quick,” Ross said. “But I don’t see a whole lot of difference in his [full windup] delivery, in his arm motion and things like that. Which is good. It didn’t seem to affect the pitches. That’s my main concern.”
Despite the earlier than planned exit and the runs allowed, Hanson said he was thrilled just to be back pitching in a game. The rain was even enjoyable in a way.
“I was getting balls that were soaking wet, the mound was drenched,” he said. “But it was still fun. When I was out there I was just laughing about it because I was glad to be out there on the mound. It was fun to compete again.
“It was one of those conditions where I didn’t really care what happened because it didn’t matter. It was almost like I was a little kid just playing in the rain again. It was definitely fun to be back out there.”
Last season Hanson went 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and .190 opponents’ average in 17 starts before the All-Star break. Then the shoulder went from merely nagging to aching, and he was 1-3 with an 8.10 ERA in five starts after the break.
He didn’t pitch again after Aug. 6.
He was diagnosed with a small rotator cuff tear in late August, an injury that many veteran pitchers develop through normal wear and tear. Surgery can usually be avoided unless the tear worsens.
Hanson tried a few times to get back in the rotation late in the season, but the pain returned each time when he got back on the mound and ramped up the intensity of his throwing sessions.
When the season ended he took measures to avoid worsening damage, beginning with a rigorous conditioning program designed to strengthen the back and shoulder muscles.
It was during a month-long stint working out at Braves training camp in Florida when Hanson listened to physical therapist Troy Jones’ suggestion that he tweak his pitching mechanics in order to preserve his health.