In honor of Jeff Francis's return to the mound, I'm providing the fourth installment in my 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey. The cast of active participants increased by one this afternoon, as Francis squared off with the Nationals. It was Francis' first start since September of 2008.
Much like Brandon Webb, Francis entered Spring Training with the intent of being ready for Opening Day. Unfortunately, his progress stalled and was complicated by an unrelated injury to his back, thus delaying him by about six weeks. The Rockies were cautious with his rehab, so he arrived in Colorado prepared to throw around 100 pitches.
Although it's been twenty months since his last appearance, in this start it looked like he'd never left. He allowed a couple hits, a walk, and a run in the first inning, but Francis, like many soft-tossing lefties, has always tended to struggle in the opening frame (6.37 career ERA, his highest for any inning). Thereafter, he settled in and allowed only five hits, a walk, and no runs over the next six. He also struck out six. Francis mixed in all four of his pitches (fastball, changeup, sligder, curve) and touched 91 MPH, although he was more consistently in the 88-89 range. In the seventh, possibly tiring, Francis gave up two singles to start the inning, but was able to strand them by getting a pair of strikeouts and a pop-up. He induced nine groundballs, including a key double-play to end the sixth.
The Rockies need Francis to pitch like he did today, as they are still without their #2 starter, Jorge De La Rosa and haven't gotten much from either Aaron Cook (1-3, 5.80 ERA) or Jason Hammel (1-2, 7.71 ERA). If Francis can eat some innings, it will help take the pressure of Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, and the bullpen, which has been among the best in the NL (117 IP, 3.08 ERA).
This afternoon also featured the fourth start of the season from Ted Lilly, another member of the S.S.S. roster. Lilly managed seven strong innings, allowing six hits, three walks, and three earned runs. Like Francis, he took a no-decision, but his team did end up with the win. It clearly took Lilly a couple outings to shake off the rust, but he's been building up his pitch counts and has quality starts in each of his last two games. There's little reason to believe that he isn't prepared to be the same dependable top-of-the-rotation starter he has been for the Cubs since they signed him.
A very similar scenario is developing across town, as Freddy Garcia has started to really round into form. He's 2-0 in May with a 2.77 ERA, after going 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in April. He'll be tested a little this coming week, as he'll take the mound against the division rival Tigers and the Florida Marlins, who have some thunder and are on a bit of a hot streak (swept the Mets in a four-game series, won six of their last seven). Ozzie Guillen has been a little conservative with Garcia, who has only thrown 100+ pitches once so far, but he's still be able to go at least six innings in five of six outings, which speaks well for his efficiency.
Jeremy Bonderman has also shown a dramatic improvement since the calender turned. He's had bad luck in terms of decisions (0-1), but has posted a 2.08 ERA in his last fourteen innings and has clearly regained his control, giving up just one free pass over that span. The Tigers are no doubt a bit concerned with his velocity. His average fastball speed so far this season is 89.5 MPH, significantly lower than his career mark of 92.5 MPH. In his last start, an excellent seven-inning outing against the Yankees, Bonderman topped out a 93 MPH and pitched consistently in the 89-90 range. This, coming from a guy who at one time could occasionally reach the upper nineties. Certainly, Bonderman has enough movement, control, and variety in his pitches to be effective even with lowered velocity, but the Tigers have pushed back his next start, perhaps partly to see if his arm will be at all rejuvenated by a full week of rest.
Of the eight members of our survey, those are the only four who have pitched in the majors thusfar in 2010. Of the guys remaining on the D.L., Erik Bedard is probably the closest to joining a rotation. He has progressed much faster than expected and the Mariners expect him to start throwing off the mound within a week, which still puts his return date somewhere around a month away. Brandon Webb is throwing from flat ground, but as yet there's no timetable for rehabbing him into pitching shape, so an All-Star Break return seems optimistic. The Nationals have set a tentative date for Chien-Ming Wang debut at July 1st. Finally, Dustin McGowan, the Blue Jays youngster, who had perhaps the most serious injury of any of our participants, is still working primarily on a strengthening program. No timetable has been set, and with many young Jays pitchers performing well, there seems no reason to rush him. It seems to me only about 50/50 that McGowan pitches this season.