SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — In a fit of frustration, Mark Mulder may have found his salvation.
The Cardinals' eternally rehabbing starter was so fed up with the inconsistencies of his delivery that he told trainer Keith Sanders three weeks ago that he'd had enough. Over. Done. He was "going to come back as a sidearm reliever," the lefty joked.
From aggravation came invention.
Introducing a delivery one tick above sidearm, Mulder started his fourth rehab assignment in the past three seasons with five shutout innings Saturday for Class AA Springfield. He not only threw freer and easier in his first time facing hitters with the new arm slot, he also threw consistently with considerably more velocity than he's had in other rehab starts. The new delivery is no longer a joke.
"It was night and day compared to what I was doing a month ago," Mulder said. "I feel myself getting closer, compared to where I've been. It's that release point, the way the ball comes out of my hand. Before it just wasn't there. Is it perfect? No. Not yet. But it's closer than it ever has been."
Mulder started the first game of a rehab double-dip. In the nightcap, righthander Matt Clement, making his third start of a rehab assignment, pitched five innings in what he called a "fine" outing. He allowed three runs on five hits and struck out three, but his velocity hung in the mid-80s. The mending major leaguers pitched the Cardinals to a sweep at Hammons Field against Northwest Arkansas, the Royals' affiliate.
In his five innings of a 4-0 shutout, Mulder threw 73 pitches, 56 of which were strikes. He held the Naturals to five hits, and eight of his 15 outs were groundouts. He described himself as "encouraged."
Mulder's return from two shoulder surgeries has been a prolonged tease for the team — and the pitcher. Since his first surgery in September 2006 and signing a two-year, $13 million deal, Mulder has made 13 rehab starts and three big-league starts. In 2006 and 2007, Mulder returned to the majors from rehab assignments only to find his shoulder uncomfortable and unable to perform.
"Definitely, I would hope this is different. It better be," Mulder said Saturday. "I feel closer. Things are definitely moving in the right direction. Before, yeah, they would get a little better. But then they'd go back to the old ways. I couldn't really break it."
Saturday was different from his first pitch.
In his final start of his rehab assignment earlier this year, Mulder pitched mostly in the 86- to 87-mph range. He topped out at 89 mph, getting two fastballs there. His first pitch Saturday was 89 mph. He threw a 92 mph fastball to the second batter he faced, and he sat consistently at 90 to 91 mph with his sinker throughout his five innings.
"I can finally make pitches, that's what it feels like," he said.
In late May, Mulder took two cortisone shots to the shoulder and one blow to his patience. Through two years of rehab he has been trying to get his arm up, extend it through the delivery, and the shoulder has resisted. His elbow would buckle and a hitch developed in his mechanics. After the shots, Mulder decided to try dropping his arm down, going "natural" and where the shoulder allowed.
Consider a delivery like the face of a clock with the pitcher's head at 12 o'clock: Mulder, a lefty, had been trying to throw at 1 o'clock. On Saturday, his delivery was close to 2 o'clock. The concerns he had about his control at that angle vanished quickly. He threw most pitches successfully with the exception of his splitfinger, which the new arm slot complicated. Mulder froze the only lefty he faced with a curveball for strike three and got him to bounce another curve to first base.
He splintered two bats with 87-mph cutters and got a first-pitch strike on 12 of 19 batters.
Mulder will throw a bullpen session in St. Louis early this week and then head back out for a second rehab start. He has 30 days to complete the rehab assignment, though he'd rather not need the whole month.
"If I were to need 30 days, things didn't get better from here," Mulder said. "I do feel better about it. I'm trying to get myself ready to go back and help this team."