Ryan Madson swept the dirt off the mound at Maryvale Baseball Park as the sixth inning began on Monday. Most of his peers were done for the day. The handful of Royals regulars who made the trip carried their gear toward the visitors’ clubhouse midway through a 5-4 victory over the Brewers.
Madson hopes to join this group on Opening Day in less than a month at Kauffman Stadium. To get there, he must out-perform at least a half-dozen other candidates in the competition for the final spots in the Royals bullpen. He must also ensure his surgically-repaired right elbow survives spring training for the first time since 2011.
In his Cactus League debut, his first organized action since a Class A game for the Angels in 2013, Madson showcased reasons for optimism and evidence for skeptics. He hustled through a four-batter inning in 12 pitches. He whiffed one opponent with a changeup. In the lone encounter when he fell behind in the count, he yielded a home run to a minor-league utility man who went deep only 10 times in 2014.
Madson lacked accuracy with his four-seam fastball, but scouts still clocked the pitch at 91-92 mph, a tick below the 94-mph heater he unleashed with regularity for the Phillies through 2011. His changeup fooled his adversaries, even if they were of the lower-level variety. Manager Ned Yost referred to the offspeed pitch as “a real weapon.”
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“That’s the most exciting part,” Madson said. “When I was thinking about what I wanted today, I wanted the changeup to work. Because if I have that, I know I can go far.”
Madson still occupies the periphery of the competition. He is not on the 40-man roster. He is also not left-handed, and with Tim Collins sidelined for the foreseeable future, a southpaw like Franklin Morales may have a better chance at making the roster.
Yet Madson possesses a pedigree unmatched by his rivals in this competition. He was a crucial cog in the Phillies bullpen for years. He continues to impress Royals officials with his effectiveness.
“He looked good,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He looked really good. He had some angle to his pitches. I thought his fastball had some life. And his changeup, which has always been his signature pitch, was there. I was very pleased with what I saw today.”
A pair of incidents clarified the competition over the weekend. An MRI revealed damage to Collins’ ulnar collateral ligament. He could require season-ending surgery. A day later, the Royals signed right-hander Chris Young to a major-league deal. The team ticketed him for a role as a long reliever and spot starter.
The acquisition of Young means the Royals already have six spots filled in their bullpen, if Luke Hochevar can answer the bell on Opening Day. Less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Hochevar completed a round of live batting practice on Monday. He pronounced the session as “great.”
“He really threw the ball good for me,” Yost said.
Hochevar will make his Cactus League debut on Thursday. He will throw an inning against Cleveland. His health will determine the size of the bullpen.
When the season begins, Hochevar may not be able to pitch on consecutive days. Yost has said the club may break camp with eight relievers on their roster. The team is intrigued by Rule 5 pick Jandel Gustave. Louis Coleman is out of options. While Yost insists he does not require a left-handed reliever, one figures that with eight on board, one would be a southpaw.
So for Madson, the climb remains uphill. He is executing baby steps. Early on Monday morning, Madson scanned the Royals schedule tacked on a clubhouse wall. Yost passed his in the hallway.
“Today’s your day,” Yost said.
“Yes, sir,” Madson said.
He had to wait five innings to take the mound. By then, the big-leaguers had departed. Madson scooped up a quick groundout and then punched out third baseman Hector Gomez with a pair of diving changeups.
Up next was Matt Long. Madson tried to fool him with a 1-1 changeup.
“It was a good one,” Madson said. “And he took it. So that was my first inclination like, ‘Whoa, what to do now.’ I was kind of lost. And I just threw a fastball. I didn’t really care where it went.”
The ball landed in the grass above the right-field wall. Yost shrugged the pitch off. In Arizona, at this time of year, any fly ball is capable of clearing a fence. It was still a reminder of the rust Madson must remove.
After waiting years to return to action, one home run did not discourage him. His arm continues to feel fresh, a product of a revamped workout routine and a year of rest in 2014.
“I feel like I didn’t throw a pitch today,” Madson said. “Warming up, I didn’t feel anything. After the game, it feels like I didn’t throw a pitch. That’s pretty cool.”