Phelps Seeing Stars

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. More often than not, that's merely a poetic way of saying "suck it up."

For Cubs pitching prospect Michael Phelps, it wasn't that simple.

Perhaps you've heard Phelps' tale before; perhaps not. It happened not too long ago in a place not too far away.

The injury that would define Phelps' college career at Central Missouri State, a Division II school in Warrensburg, Mo., happened innocently enough.

(Doesn't it always?)

Phelps' injury was unlike that of most players, however. While pitching for the Mules in the early stages of the 2005 season, he was struck in the temple by a throw to second base from catcher Brent Lacy, now a member of the Cleveland Indians' farm system.

Phelps was seeing stars before blacking out. He regained consciousness several moments later only to discover that he couldn't move his arms or legs. He would miss the next seven weeks while recovering.

When he returned, Phelps would stand out on the mound like he never had before. He was required to wear a catcher's helmet as he pitched, thus raising a few questions from any would-be scouts in attendance that were previously unaware of Phelps' injury.

"I didn't know what repercussions I was going to have," Phelps said while looking back on the ordeal. "I had to go up to Chicago and talk to Dr. [Stephen] Adams. He told me how lucky I was to still be playing baseball. You see this stuff and it could have gotten bad. I got pretty lucky."

Luck aside, Phelps fell to the Cubs in the 11th round of the draft later that year and says his complete list of medical reports, which included as many as 30 different MRIs following the injury, totaled upwards of 50 pages.

The 22-year-old is able to laugh about it all now.

"I just don't think I have any brains up there to mess around with," he jokes.

Perhaps some of the scouts who inquired about Phelps' unusual attire on the mound following the injury were also in attendance during the previous year's Cape Cod League. There Phelps appeared in 14 games and made two starts, posting a 5.04 ERA in 25 innings for the Falmouth Commodores.

Phelps had tried his hand at starting periodically in college, but always found that the bullpen suited him best.

"I like the pressure of relieving," he says. "I like going in with guys on base and getting out of it. When I would start, my adrenaline would pump way too hard. I'd throw them everything I had in the first three innings. When I come in and throw an inning or two, I can control myself a lot better than I would throwing five or six innings. I have a lot of adrenaline."

Phelps appeared in 17 games between the Mesa Cubs of the Arizona League and Class-A Peoria and Daytona in his rookie season a year ago. He began 2006 with Peoria before moving up to Daytona just a week later.

With the Florida State League club, Phelps would finish with a 2.73 ERA in 22 appearances, leaving the team near the end of May with an injury – this one a little less serious, what Phelps described as a pinch in his shoulder.

"Come to find out, the muscles in the back of my arm were weaker than those in the front of my arm," Phelps said. "It's hard to explain. The pinch was inside my joint. It's hard to explain exactly where it was at. There was a lot of inflammation there."

Entering the year, Phelps was ranked the Cubs' 21st best prospect by Baseball America. Because 2006 was to be Phelps' first full year with the organization, he didn't expect to get a call-up as quickly as he did.

"I was at home in St. Louis because it was Easter Sunday when I got the news," Phelps recalled. "I was out golfing with my parents. I was under the impression that I was getting ready to get a car to drive back to Peoria because I didn't have one. At the time, Chris Shaver had done really well at Daytona and got moved up."

The right-handed Phelps features a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, which never fluctuated after the injury in college. He also possesses a slider and changeup in his arsenal. In college, he says he tended to stick primarily with the fastball and slider. That was before the injury.

"When I came back, I started working on the changeup," he said. "Now that changeup is probably the best pitch I've got. I'll throw it whenever I want."

After the injury to his shoulder this past season, which would require Phelps to spend over two months away from Daytona, he reported losing a couple of ticks on his fastball, but gaining more movement with it.

With hopefully the worst sting from the injury bug behind him, Phelps is seeing stars again – only in a different way.

"I want to work my fastball and slider a lot more with regards to location," Phelps said of his immediate goals. "My changeup, I feel like I'm very comfortable with to where I can put it wherever I want. I'm trying to work on a lot more location-wise with all three pitches instead of just one that I can locate all the time."

"I'm just going to throw and show people what I can do," he said.

And though he's never done any closing, Phelps' confident mindset resembles that of many successful closers. The concept of closing games on a regular basis hasn't crept into Phelps' mind just yet in large part because of the closers he's been teamed with throughout the early part of his career.

This past season alone, Phelps worked to set up for the likes of Ed Campusano, Adalberto Mendez and eventually Paul Schappert.

But, Phelps says, "Throw me in there wherever you want. I'm not scared."

All things considered, why should he be?

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