Homecoming for Jon Connolly

Signing a contract with the Nashua Pride of the Independent Can-Am League following his unexpected release by the Chicago Cubs this past spring, Jon Connolly had something to prove.

Connolly, a 22-year-old left-hander that underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in July of 2005, needed to prove that he was healthy; that he still had all the potential left to warrant a second chance with another major league organization; that the Chicago Cubs had made a mistake.

After only one start for the Pride, the Detroit Tigers had all the proof they would need.

With scouts from at least four major league organizations in the stands, Connolly pitched seven innings for the Pride in his only start with the New Hampshire-based team on May 29 in Brockton, Ma. He allowed one run (a home run) on two hits, striking out eight and walking one.

Detroit, who had drafted Connolly out of Oneonta High School in upstate New York at age 17, welcomed the southpaw back with open arms. It was a particularly sweet homecoming for Connolly, who had spent the recent off-season in Arizona rehabbing his shoulder.

As some of you may recall, I was not openly fond of the Cubs' decision to release Connolly. Someone who had posted better than average numbers and did all that was asked of him – including sacrificing his hometown and family for a year-round apartment in Arizona – deserved another chance, I had argued.

When talking to Connolly for this story, I thought back to the last time we had chatted. It was in late April, and Connolly was still in shock over being released. He was given the news on a Saturday – April 1, to be exact.

"Happy April Fools Day, right?" he told me.

With his wife at work during daytime hours, Connolly was forced to take the bus to and from Fitch Park and the surrounding rehab facilities in Mesa each day. He had been offered a ride there from friend and then fellow injured pitching prospect Rocky Cherry, but the Cubs refused to work Connolly's rehab into correlating time slots with that of Cherry's.

All the while, Cherry and Connolly lived two blocks apart. Their daily workouts were scheduled only 90 minutes apart.

Not long after the release, though, Connolly had moved on with the help of an old friend or two.

"I made the one start for Nashua and the day before my next scheduled start was when I got the phone call from [Tigers Player Development Director] Glenn Ezell," recalls Connolly. "He asked me if I wanted to pitch for them again and I said yes. They bought my contract that afternoon."

Connolly had won 16 games at Class-A West Michigan in 2003. He earned the Tiger organization's Pitcher of the Year Award that year, posting a 1.41 ERA in 25 starts.

The next season, the Tigers traded Connolly to the Cubs for pitcher Felix Sanchez. While Sanchez would go on to have modest success with the Lakeland Tigers of the Florida State League in 2005, he also battled injury.

A-ball was clearly not the level Detroit had anticipated seeing Sanchez in after he had spent the previous two seasons at Double-A, even making three appearances with the Chicago team in 2003.

Connolly, meanwhile, won nine games with a 2.40 ERA in 21 starts for Daytona in his first year with the Cub farm system. Pitching hurt at West Tenn the following year in his debut Double-A season, he was 3-2 with a 4.44 ERA in nine appearances, including four starts.

While temporarily gone after his release from the Cubs, Connolly was never forgotten. He soon garnered an invitation to a tryout with the Pride. Not long after that, a story appeared in Baseball America touting the young pitcher's road to recovery.

Only after he agreed to re-join the Tigers did Connolly learn that scouts from the Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates were also on hand for his Nashua debut and had expressed an interest in signing him.

It didn't matter. Going back to the Tigers was something that just felt right.

"It was a good fit for me," Connolly said. "A lot of the guys knew who I was, knew how I pitched and liked me. I also knew a lot of guys in their farm system that were there when I was."

Connolly went to Lakeland for three starts after joining the Tigers and was 3-0 with four earned runs allowed in 21 2/3 innings. He soon got the call-up to Double-A Erie and eventually made one spot start for Triple-A Toledo.

In his most recent outing with Erie on Wednesday night, Connolly threw seven shutout innings in a complete game victory over the New Britain Rock Cats. He allowed two hits, walked three, and struck out six in the first game of a double-header. It was his finest start since coming off the surgery.

"I'd been throwing the ball well but not getting great results," Connolly said. "It seemed like I'd been throwing four or five good innings and then in the final inning I was out there, they started finding the holes."

The stats only support Connolly's theory. In the first through fifth innings with the SeaWolves, he has a 2.48 ERA (11 earned runs in 40 innings). From the sixth inning onward, that total goes to 20 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings.

Overall, Connolly is 3-3 with a 5.77 ERA in eight starts with Erie.

"I don't think the numbers agree with how well I've thrown," he said. "I feel good and my arm feels good, though. Next year, after I have a little break, we'll see if my velocity comes back a little more. In reality, I haven't had a break from baseball since after the '04 season."

For Connolly, it's a story with a happy ending – for now. He believes the Tigers felt they made a mistake in trading him to begin with. Giving him a second chance was one way to make things right.

"I feel like I never left here," he said.

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