The Wait Has Been Worth It : Pena Has Rewarded Dodger Patience With Reliability
The mere summoning of Alejandro Pena from the bullpen does not mean he is ready to pitch. Certain rituals must be completed first. There is his entrance, for instance. Pena doesn’t walk to the mound, he strolls. And once there, the Dodgers’ right-handed reliever dawdles.
Pena manicures the mound with his spikes, and seemingly spends minutes kneading the rosin bag.
Inevitably, the plate umpire will have Pena remove his neck chain, which resembles a hood ornament.
Then, finally, Pena stares at the catcher’s mitt, like a marksman lining up his target.
Once he throws a pitch, the routine starts all over again. He takes so much time between pitches that his Dodger teammates kiddingly call Pena the human rain delay.
“He even stands slow,” Ron Perranoski, the Dodger pitching coach, said with a shrug.
But the Dodgers have learned it is best to wait for Pena, because that patience usually is rewarded. Pena has been the Dodgers’ most consistent, if not most effective, relief pitcher this season. He recently had a streak of scoreless innings broken at 22, and he has the pitching staff’s lowest earned-run average, 1.77, and the most appearances, 38.
Since becoming a full-time reliever on Aug. 29, 1987, Pena has allowed just 13 earned runs and 58 hits in 94 innings.
And certainly, the Dodgers are used to waiting for Pena. They kept a three-year vigil for him, hoping that after rehabilitation from shoulder surgery he would still be the dominating pitcher who won the National League ERA title as a starter in 1984.
On his way to a 12-6 record and a 2.48 ERA that season, due mainly to a fastball that consistently was clocked at 96 m.p.h., Pena felt soreness in his right shoulder and started only one game after Aug. 24.
But the wait was just beginning. The next spring, what was supposed to be relatively minor arthroscopic shoulder surgery turned into major repair work. Bone fragments had to be removed.
Then began a long period of rigorous rehabilitation. Pena missed almost the entire 1985 season, making two cameo appearances near the end of it.
In 1986, he began the season on the disabled list and, after being activated in May, had a 0-1 record with a 7.10 ERA in his first nine relief appearances. He improved later in the season and earned a win and a save. But his fastball had lost considerable speed, and he still ended the season with a 5.02 ERA.
In the first half of last season, Pena showed only slight improvement. He lost his spot in the rotation about halfway through the season, after going 0-5 with a 5.30 ERA. There were rumors that the Dodgers were trying to trade him, but apparently there were no takers.
Reassigned to middle relief, though, Pena finally began coming around. His fastball got faster, and he worked on refining his breaking ball and developing a changeup.
After a few good outings and injuries to short relievers, Pena became the closer almost by default late last season. And he took to the role. He saved 9 games in his last 10 outings and had an 0.38 ERA in his last 14.
Impressed as the Dodgers were, though, they still hesitated to rely too much on Pena. He could not pitch on consecutive days because of his shoulder condition and needed extra time to warm up.
This season, though, Pena’s recovery time between outings has improved, and his fastball has been consistently clocked in the 90s. What’s more, Pena has made more appearances than Jay Howell or Jesse Orosco, the short relievers for whom the Dodgers traded last winter.
He has appeared in consecutive games on five occasions this season and has allowed only one earned run in his second-night appearances.
On the Dodgers’ just-completed 16-game trip, Pena pitched three times in four days against the Chicago Cubs. He worked seven scoreless innings, allowing just five hits.
“If you look at the whole picture, he’s totally back,” said Pat Screnar, the Dodger physical therapist who has worked with Pena. “The last hurdle was to show people that he can throw every day or every other day.”
Pena, speaking as deliberately as he pitches, does not make any proclamations about a complete comeback.
“What I try to do is go out there and do my job whenever they give me the ball,” he said. “I feel pretty good (pitching on consecutive days). I feel a lot stronger now, no question about it.
“My confidence is the same now as in 1984. The more I pitch, the more my shoulder feels stronger and stronger. I like what I’m doing. I’ve put (thoughts of) starting away. Far away. Real far.”
Even if he wanted to return to the rotation, the Dodgers wouldn’t let him. He is too valuable in the bullpen, according to Perranoski.
“I think he’s a better overall pitcher now than before the injury,” Perranoski said. “He’s learned how to pitch and he has more experience. And he was a pretty good pitcher back then, too.
“I did have some doubts about whether he’d make it back, physically. But he has worked hard and you can tell by the way he pitches. In the past, we wouldn’t even think of bringing him back (to pitch) the next day. Now, basically, I treat him like the other (relievers).”
Pena, however, is not like other relievers when it comes to warming up or working on the mound.
“When they call down to get Al up (to throw), he stands slowly, takes his jacket off, looks around,” fellow reliever Brian Holton said. “Most guys are running to get ready. You’d think he’d want to hurry to warm up because it would take him longer after that surgery. But it works for him the way he does it. We don’t care.”
Pena may be deliberate, but trainers said he worked extremely hard during the rehabilitation process. His therapy included an intense and prolonged strengthening program of exercises plus weight training on different types of machines. He also threw a lot of pitches and submerged his shoulder in mounds of ice for close to three years before feeling like his former self.
“It came gradually,” Screnar said. “He kept progressing, with only a few times early on when he’d take a step or two back. In ‘86, he was inconsistent. In ‘87, he had a good spring and was getting better, but he wasn’t there.
“I think the real breakthrough came when he went to the bullpen. He wasn’t afraid to throw his fastball and he had success. Going into this year, the only thing he hadn’t accomplished was throwing in consecutive games. That was the final hurdle, getting that resiliency.”
Pena called his rehabilitation period a difficult time. He did not show his frustration during the three-year rehabilitation but he said it surfaced periodically.
“A lot of clubs would have given up on Pena after what happened,” Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, said. “But it’s a tribute to Alejandro and the trainers. We just had the patience to wait.”
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