With more than 14 years service time in the major leagues, LaTroy Hawkins is the most experienced player on the Milwaukee Brewers’ roster. At 38, he’s also the second-oldest.
Ask the right-hander about it, though, and he’ll tell you it’s all just a state of mind.
I don’t feel old,” he said. “I can still go out there and do a lot of the things the young guys can do.”
While it’s only been about three weeks since he rejoined the Brewers’ active roster, the numbers Hawkins has put up in his eight appearances have indeed kept him in line with his more junior compatriots: 7 2/3 innings pitched, a 1.17 ERA and WHIP and four strikeouts.
It’s a small sample, no doubt. But for a guy who’s only about nine months removed from surgery on his throwing shoulder and a team that has an acute need for some stability in its bullpen, it’s also something positive to build on as Hawkins’ velocity and location continue to improve.
A year ago at this time, frustration was the buzzword for both parties.
One of the more reliable and durable relievers in the majors since 2000, Hawkins had signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract to do the same for the Brewers. He came to Milwaukee from Houston, where he enjoyed something of a rebirth in 2009, when he posted a 2.13 ERA and 11 saves in 65 appearances for the Astros.
But almost from the start with the Brewers, things didn’t go as planned.
Hawkins sat out a couple of weeks in spring training with tightness in his right shoulder and then after tossing 3 1/3 scoreless innings in his first four regular-season outings, blew saves by giving up seven earned runs in a pair of losses at Chicago and Washington.
He rebounded over his next six appearances, allowing just one earned run, but then fell apart again in a home loss to Los Angeles when the Dodgers tagged him for four earned runs in just one-third inning to drop his record to 0-3.
“I never could repeat pitches, my velocity had plummeted and I just got frustrated,” Hawkins said. “It was very frustrating being out there knowing I couldn’t get extension on my pitches, where if I got out too far it felt like I was sticking my hand in an electrical socket.”
Milwaukee placed him on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder weakness three days later and then eventually the 60-day DL, where he remained until being reinstated on July 29 after pitching six times in two different rehab assignments.
Hawkins made it just 4 1/3 innings over the next 12 days before being returned to the DL on Aug. 12. A little over two weeks later, he had his right labrum scoped – his first surgery of any kind in 19 seasons of pro ball.
“The toughest part was going all those years without being injured and feeling like you’re invincible, and all of a sudden having an injury where you can’t throw a baseball like you used to be able to throw it,” he said. “I used to be able to just pick up a ball and throw it.
“When I picked up a ball last year it was like, ‘OK, let me get my shoulder set right, get it to where it won’t hurt.’ I think that was the most stressful part about it – not feeling invincible.”
Hawkins next picked up a baseball on Dec. 1 but didn’t like how he felt, so he flew back to Los Angeles to visit with Lewis Yocum, who performed the surgery.
“He told me, ‘I’ve done 500,000 of these surgeries. You didn’t have surgery at 27. You had surgery at 37. Give it a little time. We’re going to shut you down for another month, pick up a ball Jan. 1 and see how you feel,’ ” Hawkins said. “He told me, ‘You’ll be all right – I promise.’ ”
Hawkins did what he was told and Yocum was proved right.
“I picked up a ball Jan. 1 and it was like, ‘Whoa. I haven’t felt like that in a long time,’ ” he said. “I haven’t had any problems after that.”
Hawkins ramped up his rehab from there, and by the second week of this season was in the midst of a handful of minor-league rehab outings while remaining on the DL. He was reinstated April 21 and pitched for the first time the next day against the Astros.
In his seven appearances since, Hawkins hasn’t given up a run as he continues to try to increase his velocity.
“I’m not back to where I was, but I can still get it up there when I reach back,” he said. “Before the injury I didn’t have to reach back and get it up there. Now I save a little bit, and it’s always there if I need it.”
Unsure if he’d ever be able to get back into the mid-90s during his rehab, Hawkins was forced to work more on his off-speed stuff to compensate. That added work, he hopes, also will pay dividends.
“It did make me concentrate on my breaking balls, my change-up, because if I didn’t get my velocity back I’d have to rely on those pitches a tremendous amount,” he said. “More than I’ve ever had to rely on those pitches before.”
Hawkins continues to earn the trust of manager Ron Roenicke, as well. With his bullpen battling myriad maladies since spring training, Roenicke believes Hawkins could be a perfect fit in the seventh inning, bridging the way for setup man Kameron Loe and closer John Axford.
“I’m hoping he can take off with that,” Roenicke said. “If he can, that really puts guys in their place in the bullpen.”
In the meantime, Hawkins has made concessions to his age in the form of extra stretching, massage therapy and ultrasound before and after games – things he never even thought of in his younger days.
“I’m in the ‘preparation’ period of my career,” he said. “But you know what? If it’s going to keep me on the field, keep me healthy, that’s what’s most important.”