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Life in Minor Leagues Has Been Major Pain : Baseball: Former Rancho Santiago pitcher Chris Shiflett, now with the Tulsa Drillers, is facing the possibility of more surgery on his pitching arm.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron and Sharon Shiflett planned a trip to Tulsa, Okla., last spring to watch their son, Chris, pitch for the Tulsa Drillers of the double-A Texas League.

They left for Tulsa expecting to watch a 10-game home stand, figuring their son, a relief pitcher, would make a few appearances. They arrived just in time to learn he would undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right (pitching) shoulder.

One year and many hours of rehabilitation later, the Shifletts booked another trip to Tulsa, this one for mid-May. Then came the news from Chris:

Another sore shoulder.

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A possibility of surgery.

More rest.

“Maybe it’s a jinx,” Chris said.

Ron hopes it isn’t.

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“The plane tickets are non-refundable,” he said. “We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

So is his son.

Chris Shiflett, 25, has struggled with arm problems for five seasons in the minor leagues, after capping an outstanding amateur career at Rancho Santiago College.

Like most young pitchers in the Rangers’ system, Shiflett has aspirations of standing on the mound at Arlington Stadium. He dreams of a clubhouse stall next to Nolan Ryan’s. He hopes to pitch to the best hitters in baseball.

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But reality is catching up.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “Every time I start feeling good, it seems like there’s something holding me back.”

It seemed as though nothing could stop Shiflett after he graduated from Riverside La Sierra High in 1984. He was a starter at Rancho Santiago as a freshman. As a sophomore, he was 8-2 with one save, leading the Dons (34-10) to the State final.

“We had a tough team,” Shiflett said. “We got beat by College of the Canyons in the (State) finals that year.”

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Taken in the first round of the January, 1986, draft by the Rangers, Shiflett showed promise with an 88-m.p.h. fastball and a wicked curve.

“His best pitch is that curve,” his father said. “That’s a big league curve.”

But Shiflett’s career was thrown a curve three years ago, when he underwent surgery to repair bone chips in his pitching elbow.

He rebounded in 1989 with his best season in the minors. He went 5-2 with eight saves for the rookie league Butte (Mont.) Copper Kings.

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“Butte was a change of pace from living in California,” Shiflett said. “Some of those bus trips for games were incredible. We had games that were getting snowed out in June.”

Shiflett’s strong showing at Butte earned him a promotion to Tulsa the next season.

Then his shoulder problems started.

He had four saves and 25 strikeouts in 13 appearances, but his shoulder began stiffening after he pitched. Doctors discovered ligament damage as well as partial tear in the rotator cuff.

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Dr. Lewis Yocum of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic performed the surgery on Shiflett, who spent the next several months in rehabilitation.

“My rehab went really well,” Shiflett said. “It felt like it took a while, though.”

But it was worth it. When he began throwing this spring, his shoulder felt fine.

“Everything was going well,” he said. “I had decent control and good pop on the ball.”

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Shiflett, 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, has pitched in only four games this season, all in relief. He has a 5.59 earned-run average, giving up seven hits and six runs in 9 2/3 innings of work. He has yet to figure in a decision.

His sore shoulder has postponed his comeback. Shiflett hasn’t pitched in 11 days. His most-recent outing was 1 2/3 innings against Shreveport, La. He returned to his hotel room that night in pain.

“I couldn’t lift my arm,” he said. “It hurt just sitting on the bench.”

Doctors have prescribed rest for now, but Shiflett fears the worst--more surgery.

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“We’re not real clear on what we should do yet,” he said. “We’re going to wait and see if it tightens up again.”

Shiflett is not the only Driller with arm problems. Right-hander Rob Nenn, a former standout at Los Alamitos, is on the disabled list for three weeks with a sore elbow.

“Our pitching staff is pretty thin right now,” Shiflett said.

Shiflett is in the clubhouse every day. He still travels with the team, even though he doesn’t step out of the dugout. For now, he waits and hopes. It’s all he can do.

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“Where do I go from here?” he asked. “I’ll do whatever I can to come back.”


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