VIERA, Fla. - Not only does Bill Bray come to Nationals camp this year fighting to win a job, he comes in fighting to put the bad habits he picked up during an injury-plagued 2012 season behind him.
And it's a process that isn't as easy as it might sound.
Bray excelled with the Reds in 2011, putting up a 2.98 ERA in a whopping 79 appearances, becoming a crucial part of Cincinnati's bullpen. He entered 2012 hoping to have similar success, but suffered a groin injury that threw him completely out of whack. He tried to pitch through the injury and overcompensate for not having full strength in his lower body, but that only made the problems worse.
After that stellar 2011 season, Bray posted a 5.19 ERA in just 14 games in 2012.
"I just didn't have any legs to push, so you just try and generate power using your upper body and your arm instead of your legs - because obviously when I tried to push off, I was yanking my groin - and that didn't feel very good," Bray said. "Things just changed and I got into some bad habits, and it really just affected how I pitched. I was no longer the same pitcher I was before the groin injury, but you continue to try to pitch, you continue to try to work out because you want to help your team.
"I just developed some really bad habits and I'm still working out of them, because that becomes the new mechanics. You've got to break those bad habits, and it's tough. That's what I'm doing now is just working back. It's a slow process, but I worked all winter on it, and it's still continuing."
For an outsider's perspective, it might not sound that difficult for a pitcher to revert back to his previous mechanics or throwing motion. After all, Bray has been pitching for nearly his entire life; can't he just watch tape from 2011 or think back to why he was having success before the injury?
Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.
"I don't know how I can put it in any other terms other than it's just different and it's not you, but what was you doesn't feel right," Bray said. "And the bad mechanics feel right. So you have to really avoid that temptation to fall back. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable for a while."
Right now, Bray's main issue is trying to work on his timing, so that his lower body (with the improved stride compared to last year) is in tune with his upper body and things are flowing properly. Lately, his right foot has been landing a little bit late, which is allowing his arm to find an incorrect slot.
Bray worked on his form all offseason, however, and he feels like he's making progress here in camp, as well.
"Hopefully, I'm close," he says. "We'll see once games start, but I feel good. I feel ready. I just want to go out there and do my job."
A former first-round pick of the Expos back in 2004, Bray's career has hit a few bumps along the way. After breaking into the majors with the Nats in 2006, appearing in 19 games, he was traded to the Reds as part of the Austin Kearns/Felipe Lopez trade. Bray then had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2009, costing him nearly that entire season, and the groin issues last year left him ineffective and incredibly frustrated.
"Tommy John was tough because it was a grind, but I wasn't able to play," Bray said. "Physically, there's nothing you can do about it. Last year was the worst year I've ever had in baseball. Every day, I just hated it. Baseball was no longer fun because I could no longer go out there ... I was able to pitch, but I wasn't able to pitch effectively. It was bad. I don't ever want to go through that again. But that's why you put the work in and that's why I busted my tail all winter."
Bray comes to Nats camp with a legitimate chance to win a job in the bullpen if he can regain his effectiveness. With Zach Duke the only left-handed reliever in camp on a major league deal and seemingly one spot up for grabs in the 'pen, Bray feels he has a great opportunity in front of him.
"I wouldn't be here otherwise," Bray said. "Besides coming back to D.C. and playing with guys I know and an organization that I know and people that know me, as great as that is, I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I had a chance to make the bullpen. I'm confident that as long as I'm me and I go out there and am healthy and can pitch, that I'm going to do that."