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Jays' Delabar's journey to the majors a study in perseverance

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The Canadian Press
2/19/2013 5:15:05 PM
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- On the inside of his right arm, Steve Delabar has baseball stitches tattooed over the scar from his 2002 Tommy John surgery. Under the skin, a plate and nine screws hold his elbow together from a 2009 operation.

How the six-foot-five Blue Jays reliever made it to the major leagues is a remarkable story. But for manager John Gibbons, the hard-throwing Delabar's future is what matters.

With a beefed-up starting rotation expected to chew up innings and closers Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos hopefully restored to full health, Gibbons plans to use Delabar and Esmil Rogers in the later innings to help mow down the opposition in between.

"We're counting on them," Gibbons said. "They both make us that much stronger."

That means relying on a 29-year-old pitcher whose arm will set off a metal detector wand, depending on the device's setting.

Delabar had never got above Class-A ball when he fractured his elbow pitching for the Brockton (Mass.) Rox of the Canadian-American Association in 2009.

He had been released by the San Diego Padres the previous year, after five undistinguished years.

The injury in Brockton was a nasty bump on that road. He felt something on a pitch that led to a claim of catcher's interference and a mass argument at home plate while he wondered what he had just done to his arm.

When the brouhaha settled, Delabar threw two more pitches. It didn't feel great and things went from bad to worse when he tried to deliver an even harder throw.

His elbow gave way, with Delabar hearing a pop -- like the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle.

He went to the dugout and looked down. "It seemed like there was an alien coming out of my arm," he told HBO Sports.

He was slated for a procedure called an arthrogram where they shoot dye into the arm and then X-ray it.

This time they didn't need the dye when he got on the treatment table.

"I looked back and I saw the screen and there was a hole where the bone's supposed to be connected," he recalled in an interview. "They said 'Well we don't need to do an arthrogram. We can tell it's broken.'

"I asked them what are the chances of me throwing again and they never answered the question."

Still, he refused to write off his baseball future, arguing he had already come back from Tommy John surgery.

"I was just trying to keep a positive attitude. But at the same time I was getting older and sometimes those doors close on older players."

Doctors used the plate and screws to repair the elbow on Sept. 29, 2009. Delabar got on with life back in Kentucky where he worked as a substitute teacher and helped coach a high school baseball team.

He didn't pitch in 2010, although he did play outfield on a softball team.

Delabar was working at the Players Dugout in Elizabethtown, Ky., a facility aimed at developing baseball and softball players when owner Joe Newton told him about a new system called Project Velocity which has players work out with balls of various weights and also going through the throwing motion without releasing the ball.

The program strengthens the shoulder while making the arm quicker at the same time.

Delabar asked if he could give it a shot so he could teach it to his baseball players. As he worked his way through the program, he saw his pitching speed was increasing. So he started focusing on a comeback.

The next step was to try to find a team so Delabar contacted Brian Williams, a local Seattle scout he knew.

Williams was coming through to see a local high school prospect pitch and asked to see Delabar throw.

Before the broken elbow, Delabar's arm topped out at 94 m.p.h. -- once in 2006. Consistently he threw from 87 to 92-93 m.p.h.

Today, he estimates his low at 92 and high at 97-98.

The Mariners signed him and sent him to Class-A in 2011. He worked his way up through the minors that season and was told by his Class-AAA manager in Tacoma that he was going to the majors.

Delabar called his wife and then his father, dissolving into tears both times.

He made his major league debut Sept. 11, 2011, against the Kansas City Royals, getting a fly out before striking out Alex Gordon and Melky Cabrera. Three days later, he threw a scoreless 11th inning to get the win over the New York Yankees.

He was traded to Toronto in July 2012 in exchange for outfielder Eric Thames. He finished the season with a 4-3 record with a 3.82 ERA, striking out 92 and walking 26 in 66 innings.

And he entered the record books in August when he struck out four Chicago White Sox in one inning.

Entering the game in the 10th, he dismissed Dayan Viciedo on three pitches. Then he got catcher Tyler Flowers to swing and miss a 3-and-2 ball. But the strikeout didn't stick when the ball got away from catcher Jeff Mathis and Flowers took first base. Delabar then struck out Gordon Beckham and Alejandro De Aza to become the 61st pitcher in major league history to strike out four in an innings and the first to do so past nine innings.

Delabar came out for the 11th inning and struck out another two batters, making him the 46th pitcher to finish a game with two innings and six strikeouts.

Delabar says his perfect night would be one inning and less than 20 pitches, estimating he could do that two, three or maybe four days in a row.

He says his right arm doesn't feel much different these days, other than it probably weighs a little more given the hardware inside.

But he works hard at maintaining it. In addition to the Velocity program, he also works on strengthening his body, to help support his arm.

When Delabar takes the mound, he occasionally thinks back of the journey that took him there.

"In a short period of time, a lot of things happened," he said. "It was kind of being in the right place at the right time, (the) right person saw me, the window (of opportunity) was open. And I made the most of the opportunity.

"But I look back and I'm like 'Hey, that was pretty cool.' But I don't take it for granted. I definitely cherish every bit of what I've done."

And he knows every one of his pitching colleagues has had their own obstacles to overcome.

"Everybody's got a story ... Everybody's had their winding road," he said. "It's been a journey for everybody."

Thanks to Delabar, Jays pitcher Brett Cecil is also on the Velocity Program.

Steve Delabar (Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)
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