The Comeback: Ray Liotta working his way back

Ray Liotta finished 2005 as one of the best left-handed prospects in baseball, but a shoulder injury caused him to miss the entire 2007 season, and most of 2008 as well. Now in the Royals' organization, Liotta is finally ready for another full season, and he enters 2009 feeling strong.

In 2005, Ray Liotta was cruising. Selected by the White Sox in the second round of the draft the previous summer, the big southpaw had an outstanding full season debut. Liotta's stellar 2005 campaign began at Low-A Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League, where in 20 starts he went 8-3 with a league-best 2.26 ERA.

In July he was promoted to the Carolina League, where he was even better. In two months with Winston-Salem, Liotta went 6-2 with a miniscule 1.45 ERA as the Warthogs surged to their division's second half title. When the 2005 season ended, Liotta finished a combined 14-5 with a 2.02 ERA, and he had established himself as one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball.

Liotta went 6-2 with a 1.45 ERA for Winston-Salem in 2005

Unfortunately, Liotta hit a wall in 2006. He began experiencing shoulder pain early in the season, and opposing hitters starting teeing off on his offerings. After posting a disappointing 4.93 ERA in 18 starts with Double-A Birmingham, Liotta was returned to Winston-Salem. In the league he had dominated the previous year, Liotta couldn't get anyone out. He finished with a 1-6 record and a disastrous 8.08 ERA.

"My shoulder was bothering me the entire year, but I was trying to throw through it," said Liotta in an interview with RC this week. "The next year I came to spring training, and I couldn't do anything with my arm."

Indeed, Liotta wound up missing the entire 2007 season. He spent the year trying to rehab his sore shoulder, but progress was slow. Ultimately, a torn labrum was discovered, and Liotta had surgery on his shoulder late in 2007.

Despite the setbacks and the prospect of a lengthy recovery without any assurance that he would ever return to full strength, Liotta never entertained the thought of quitting.

"I just tried to keep focused on what I was doing and do the best that I could in my rehab," said Liotta. "I tried not to let it get me down and have a positive attitude. All you have is your attitude during rehab."

In December 2007, Liotta was given a chance in a new organization when the Royals selected him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft. Fully aware that it would be months before Liotta could even step back on a mound, club officials were resolved to be patient and hope that Liotta could return to 2005 form.

The Royals selected Liotta in the 2007 Rule 5 draft

Late last summer, Liotta was ready to return to action. He made 11 appearances between three levels (rookie ball, Low-A, and High-A), and the 25-year old pitched well, posting a combined 2.01 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 40.1 innings pitched. Liotta was pleased with his progress.

"It was good," said Liotta. "I came out healthy – no problems, no setbacks. That's all I was trying to do last year. I was trying to stay healthy the entire time and get some innings under my belt and some feel back for some of my pitches."

Since the injury, Liotta has made some adjustments to his mechanics to smooth out his delivery.

"I'm finding I need to ride out my front side a little more, and not be as herky-jerky," said Liotta. "Right now, I'm really working on keeping my hips closed as long as possible and exploding at the end."

Liotta throws a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a changeup, and a cutter. He told RC that his curveball is still his best pitch, and he's working hard on getting his fastball command back to where it needs to be. The cutter is also a good pitch for him, even though he only started throwing it a couple of years ago.

"I actually developed my cutter during '06 when my shoulder was bothering me, just because I needed something to keep hitters off my fastball," said Liotta. "That was actually a blessing in disguise."

Liotta throws a fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter

This spring, Liotta feels strong, and he suspects his velocity has fully returned.

"I think it has," said Liotta. "I feel really good out there. Last year while rehabbing, I started out back at 88-89 mph, and then I dipped back like everyone else does, and then it starting coming back at the end of the year. So far this spring training, no radar guns have been on me yet, but I feel better right now than I did last year."

Finally ready for another full season, Liotta could be assigned to High-A Wilmington or Double-A Northwest Arkansas this spring, although he doesn't know where the Royals will ultimately send him.

"I'm just waiting to hear, and I'll go where they send me and do my best," said Liotta.

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