Hirsh in peak form for rotation battle
Healthy in mind and body, righty set for wide-open competition
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Rockies right-hander Jason Hirsh's health is back, and so is his smile. Which is more important as he competes for a starting rotation spot, with the first pitcher-catcher workout beginning Sunday at 1:30 p.m. MT at Hi Corbett Field?
Much has been expected of Hirsh since the Rockies received him as the key player in a deal that sent former No. 1 pitcher Jason Jennings to the Astros in December 2006. He was starting to meet expectations as a rookie in 2007 (5-7, 4.81 ERA), until a line drive left him with a broken right leg. In 2009, a shoulder strain suffered after his first Spring Training start marred his season.
The mediocre numbers in a rehab-filled season -- 4-4, 5.80 ERA in 18 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs, 0-0 and 8.31 ERA in four games with the Rockies -- might have been unavoidable. He didn't fully heal until after the season.
But thanks to a conversation with his wife, Pamela, when he was in the most pain, Hirsh began to rehab his mind. That was every bit as important as rehabilitating the shoulder.
"At some point, when I was in Triple-A, my wife had to tell me, 'No more pity parties,'" Hirsh said. "I was thinking, 'Why is my arm not feeling good, why am I feeling great but I have no velocity?' She basically told me to shut up and do what I've always done. I did realize at some point that I had a woe-is-me mentality. 'Everybody should pity me. I'm going to bring everybody down.'"
The depressed attitude was surprising. Hirsh is an outgoing sort. He and his brother, Matt, who pitched briefly in the Astros organization, are Web experts who maintain a site updating both of their baseball exploits. Jason Hirsh also has been a student of Alan Jaeger, a California trainer and consultant who teaches yoga techniques and visualization.
So the depressed attitude was surprising. But so were the circumstances.
"I'd never been hurt, even in childhood -- I'd never had arm issues, never broken a bone, never twisted an ankle, never done any of this stuff," Hirsh said. "The closest I'd ever had was I tore an intercostal muscle [within the rib cage] when I was in A-ball and missed a couple of weeks.
"Then it all happened at once. I don't know, maybe I had some bad karma going into the season or something. But now I hope all that is behind me."
Ahead of Hirsh is a juicy competition.
A spot is presumed open because left-hander Jeff Francis hasn't completely shaken the shoulder pain that marred his 2008. He says he has felt much better over the last week, but the club is being understandably cautious.
Hirsh will compete with the following:
Left-hander Franklin Morales, considered the Rockies' brightest prospect before inconsistency and back pain that he tried to hide marred his 2008 season (1-2, 6.39 ERA in five starts before being sent to the Minors).
Left-hander Greg Smith, who went 7-16 with a 4.16 ERA in 32 starts for the Athletics last season before being acquired when the Rockies dealt away three-time All-Star left fielder Matt Holliday.
Right-hander Greg Reynolds, the club's top choice in 2006, made his Major League debut last season but struggled (2-8, 8.13 ERA).
Left-hander Glendon Rusch, who went 4-3 with a 4.78 ERA in a combined starting and relief role after joining the Rockies last season.
Right-hander Josh Fogg, a key rotation member and clubhouse presence with the Rockies in 2006 and 2007 who faltered with the Reds last season (2-7, 7.58 ERA).
Hirsh, Morales and Smith all can be sent to the Minors without being exposed to waivers. Rusch and Fogg are under Minor League contracts. So it's a wide-open competition.
Early in 2007, Hirsh battled inconsistency and left manager Clint Hurdle miffed because he went away from his fastball. But after Hirsh suffered an ankle sprain, he had a rehab assignment at Colorado Springs. After talking with Minor League pitching instructor Jim Wright, who joined the Rockies this year as bullpen coach, Hirsh began to understand what Hurdle wanted.
After becoming healthy, Hirsh pitched well in his first start. In his second, the Brewers' J.J. Hardy smoked him with a first-inning line drive. Hirsh would pitch six innings with his broken leg.
Hirsh never had a chance to put that knowledge into place last year. But this is a new year.
"This offseason, as soon as I started picking up a ball and throwing again, there was no pain, no stiffness," Hirsh said. "It felt normal. I assumed everything was good. I worked out in Denver this year. That was beneficial, so they could keep tabs on me and see how everything was progressing.
"Obviously, I'm going to have to earn my position, leave it all on the table."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.