SARASOTA, Fla. - As the final minutes ticked away during last month’s FanFest in Baltimore, pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti walked across the street to watch a free agent throw at Camden Yards. It was done discreetly. A tryout that didn’t draw the attention of reporters preoccupied with the day’s events.
Later, I heard that the Orioles might sign a player to a minor league deal, the odds placed at 50-50. For a team unable to pull off a big move over the winter, it figured to go mostly unnoticed, just like the tryout.
Four days later, the Orioles announced that they signed reliever Evan Meek to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson got the deal done, having met Meek earlier and then working out the terms with agent Joe Sambito.
(In another small baseball world moment, Anderson faced Sambito in his first major league spring training. Sambito was a left-hander with the Astros, Anderson an outfield prospect with the Red Sox.)
Meek, 30, was prepared to leave Baltimore and try out for other teams, but the Orioles didn’t let him get away. Their instincts were right.
In three appearances this spring, Meek has retired all 12 batters that he’s faced and thrust himself into the bullpen picture. He was an All-Star with the Pirates in 2010, when he posted a 2.14 ERA in 70 games, but a SLAP tear of his right labrum stalled a promising career and led him on the comeback trail - which could lead him back to Baltimore.
“I feel back to what I was,” he said. “We talked earlier this spring about the arm angle and about the angle of the ball, how when I got hurt my arm angle dropped. And then working out with these weighted balls, I found my arm slot.
“The angle of the fastball with that cut is a downward angle, and it’s back to where it was when I had success. When I was hurt, my arm fell to the side, and (the cutter) was flat, it was up. I’m getting much better action on the ball, and a lot of it, too, is I feel like I have pretty good command of my pitches right now. Just going after guys and sticking to my game plan, it’s going well. Plus, the guys are making some really good plays behind me. But I feel really good.”
Meek was 7-7 with a 3.34 ERA in 156 major league relief appearances with the Pirates from 2008-2012. The Rangers signed him as a free agent on Dec. 6, 2012, and he went 6-9 with a 4.50 ERA in 33 games, including 15 starts, with Triple-A Round Rock. He didn’t pitch in the majors last season.
Meek tore his labrum during the second game of the 2011 season, but he continued to pitch for a month.
“Slowly but surely, the velocity went down, the stuff wasn’t as good, wasn’t as late, wasn’t as crisp and all that stuff. But it really lingered into 2012, also,” he said.
“It hurt and you’re trying to tinker around and find it and do all this stuff. Guys who have gotten hurt know what I’m talking about. But really, last year was the first year back, being healthy and not having any arm troubles. It was kind of like a test for me to finish the season and that was really good confidence-wise, knowing I’m good to go. I can push this now. And here we are now.”
Meek decided to avoid surgery and attempt to rehab the injury, just as Orioles left-hander Troy Patton did after being diagnosed with the same tear. Former teammate Matt Albers had the surgery.
“I went and saw Dr. (James) Andrews, but he said it was too small to cut on it, which I guess is a good thing,” Meek said.
“The injury was initially the SLAP tear, but I actually pitched for a month with that injury. All those muscles around the shoulder finally just gave out, and rehabbing the SLAP tear is rehabbing every individual muscle. The rehab was just awful. A lot of guys in this room know what rehabbing something is about. And then last year with Texas, getting all those innings in, it gave me some really good repetition. My first year back 100 percent healthy. And then the offseason, preparing myself to come in and compete for a job, it just all fell into place.
“I figured a lot of good stuff out and I’m using it now. I’m having a great time, man. I’m having a blast.”
As Meek struggled to regain his old form, he would question the decision to rehab rather than get the shoulder fixed.
“There’s definitely times where I thought about, ‘Man, I wonder if I had just gotten the surgery, if the rehab would have been a much faster process,’” Meek recalled. “Feeling good one day and thinking I’m better, and then the next day it just hurt. It didn’t feel right. And that’s just not very comforting, because when you’re on the mound, if you have any kind of doubt about your health or where you’re at, you’re not going to be 100 percent effective and you’re not going to be confident in what you’re doing.
“Now that I have all that back, I’m back to... I know we’re still only in March but stuff-wise it’s back to where it was in 2010, just in terms of the movement and just attacking the zone and stuff. It’s going great.”
Meek’s primary pitch is the cutter, but he’s commanding all of his pitches this spring.
“Every fastball I throw, I’ll cut it more to the lefties, but I’ve been throwing that split-changeup a lot and mixing in some breaking balls in there. Just progressing nicely,” he said.
“With spring training comes your progressions and every outing I try to maybe throw the breaking ball a little more or just make sure I can throw every pitch in every count. Mainly it’s really just fastball command.”
And regaining control of his career.