The Tale of Three Pitchers

This is a tale of three pitchers. At one time or another, each was rated the top prospect in the Dodgers system. Since then each has traveled a winding road leading to -- where? Two righthanders and a lefthander -- Edwin Jackson, Joel Hanrahan and Jonathan Figueroa.

It was Sept. 9, 2003, when Jackson electrified at least the Dodger part of the baseball world. That was his 20th birthday when, called up to the big club, he outdueled Randy Johnson One run, only four hits and instant celebrity. He was compared with Doc Gooden. He was certain to be in the Dodger rotation in 2004 and for who knows how many years thereafter.

That didn't happen. His spring showing was mediocre, he was optioned to Las Vegas, a known Death Valley for most pitchers but particularly so for him as he labored to a 6-4 record but with a 5.86 ERA. Oh, he was recalled to win two games but to be battered with a 7.30 ERA. Some forearm soreness was certainly part of the problem but to his credit, he offered no excuses. He was learning, he felt.

There was little talk of a rotation spot for him this past spring. Instead in was back to Vegas for more horrors. This time he was only 3-7, 8.62 before he was hustled back to Jacksonville for sanity's sake. Maybe the humid air and the proximity to his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, might help.

Throughout all his travails he never really seemed to lose the pizzazz on his pitches. His fast ball still crackled in the mid-90's. However, he seemed to have reverted to being the thrower he had been earlier. He'd forgotten how to pitch.

Edwin himself felt he knew what the problem was. "I have to have command of my fast ball," he declared. "If I can do that, everything falls into place."

And gradually work with Suns pitching coach Kenny Howell seemed to bring that back. Once again, he commanded the strike zone. He reeled off 15 innings without an earned run. He posted a 6-4, 3.48 record. More to the point, opposing batters were only hitting .224 against him. His re-emergence as the bright young hopeful seemed more evident each time out.

Friday night, he went out for the Suns again. After the first inning, though, he was called to the side. The Dodgers need a starter to sub for Odalis Perez, bothered by a muscle strain, Monday night. and Jackson got the call.

Joel Hanrahan's shining days and nights occurred even before Jackson's, with two no-hitters in 2002 for Vero Beach followed by Southern League Pitcher of the Year honors with Jacksonville in 2003. He seemed on track for big things as well.

However, he, too, suffered a nightmare year in Los Vegas. He had a 5.50 ERA and threw up 22 home runs. What's more his shoulder hurt and a lot of the fire seemed to have left his heater. In spring training this year, he didn't even pitch, rehabbing that shoulder instead.

Finally, he got into action albeit back down with Vero, a team he thought he had left behind him. His early outings weren't impressive. While he never was a power pitcher, he still seemed to have trouble keeping the ball low which he must do.

In time, his efforts seemed to get better so, even though, he had a 5.11 ERA, he was sent back up to Jacksonville. He has begun throwing from a three-quarters motion to ease the strain on his shoulder.

At times, he seemed to have recaptured some of what once was. In his next-to-last start, he threw six effective innings, scattering five hits and allowing only one run. However, his last start saw him work only five, allowing six hits and five runs.

Currently, he's 8-7, 5.15, with home runs still haunting him -- 16 allowed so far. And his once nigh untouchable status has left for reports say that he was one of three players offered to the Pirates for outfielder Matt Lawton. Significantly, the deal was turned down as Pittsburgh favored the Cubs' choice of players more.

Figueroa is a kid from Venezuela who began attracting attention when he came to the US in 2001 to shop his talents in various Showcases across the country. He seemed to get better at every stop with the Dodgers finally nailing him for a $500,000 contract.

When he formally debuted in 2002, it seemed to be a steal. He started at Great Falls. There he held to a .146 average and a 1.42 ERA. Quickly brought up to South Georgia, he was every bit as impressive for there they managed only .147 and again 1.42 against him. All this time he showed poise and three strong pitches.

He was advised not to pitch back home in Venezuela due to the number of innings he had thrown. Instead, he got married and showed up in the spring woefully out of shape. Trying to hurry back into condition he developed tendinitis. It had been planned that he'd start the season in Vero and if he looked good, go up to Jacksonville around mid-year. Instead, he rehabbed, then went back to South Georgia to stagger through a 1-8, 4.94 season.

He was certainly in shape when he reported in 2004 but there were only small samples of what he had been once. His fast ball fizzled so after 23 games with Vero that resulted in a 7.00 ERA, back he went to the franchise now known as Columbus. There were some good games there but more bad ones as he wound up 3-7, 6.90.

He's been toiling at Vero this year, first as a starter, then into the bullpen, now back in the rotation. He's worked hard with pitching coach Marty Reed, altering his arm angles at times, only to go back to the three-quarters motion he feels more at home with.

However, he's anything but comfortable on the mound. His fast ball slumbers in the mid-80's so he's become a nibbler, seeking to get hitters to chase balls out of the zone. Batters, alas, have learned to be patient. The umpires don't give him close calls, so he's usually behind in the count, forced to come in with medium stuff that gets ripped.

He tried again Friday night but was knocked out in the third, giving up eight hits and six runs before he departed. His won-loss record is a deceiving 4-3 because he did have some moments earlier but now his ERA is 6.00, and he's walked 53 batters while striking out only 52. He's been bombed for 14 home runs. He seems to be traveling in reverse.

And he, too, was one of hose that reports say the club offered the Cubs for Lawton (Outfielder Cody Ross was the third.)

So, there are the three -- Jackson, who won't be 22 until next month and who may well have reached the freeway to the big leagues once more; Hanrahan now 23 who sometimes seems to find the right road only to take a detour; and Figueroa, who'll be 22 next month and who has been seemingly lost in the woods for some time now.

Three pitchers who once shown so brightly now traveling in different directions.