OAKLAND, Calif. – Just when it looked like he was on his way to full recovery from Tommy John surgery, Hector Rondon’s right elbow literally broke apart early in the 2011 season.
And his baseball career was over.
“I wanted to quit,” the Cubs reliever said. “I told the guys with the Indians, `I’m ready to go home. I don’t want to play baseball anymore.’ “
A starting pitcher ranked as the No. 7 prospect in Cleveland’s system by Baseball America before he got hurt, Rondon was told he had a 20-percent chance of ever pitching professionally again.
And only if he endured the pain and inevitable dark moments of another yearlong rehab. If he did everything the doctors and therapists told him to do. If he was lucky.
Twenty percent. “It’s nothing,” he said.
Those close to him in the Cleveland organization, including current Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, told Rondon they still believed in him and wanted him to try one more time.
Obviously, Rondon didn’t quit. He has a 97-mph fastball and 77 career saves to prove it.
As much as anything, that part of his life and career informs this part of it.
For the last 25 months, Rondon has been one of the best closers in baseball – his 1.46 ERA and 6.5 strikeout-to-walk rate since the 2014 All-Star break even better than those of the hard-throwing All-Star the Cubs acquired early last week to take his job.
Aroldis Chapman in that span: 1.78 ERA, 3.9 strikeouts for every walk.
They have the same number of save chances, 75, in that span. Rondon converted 66; Chapman, 70.
But if Rondon, 29, wasn’t going to quit five years ago when his broken elbow told him to, he wasn’t about to flinch at this point.
“I’m not a selfish person,” he said. “I think it’s more important for our team to win games.”
While Rondon might not be in line for the same kind of glory as Chapman, he’s in position to have as much – possibly more – influence on whether the Cubs finish October the way they plan to.
As the kind of high-velocity, command-pitching weapon manager Joe Maddon didn’t have in his bullpen before the Chapman trade, Rondon could wind up in more key, hot spots down the stretch than even the new closer – especially now that Maddon has backed off the four-out save situation that Chapman doesn’t like.
Rondon, who has five scoreless setup appearances since the trade (with four holds and a win), appears ready.
“My confidence is really good,” said Rondon, whose strong performance during his first playoff run last year seemed to carry over into this season. “I learned from that moment. To breathe. And put my mind on pitch by pitch.”
Bullpen coach Lester Strode said Rondon’s rise into the kind of dominant reliever he has been the last two years was also about learning on the big-league job from the time the Cubs drafted him out of the Indians system in the Rule 5 draft before the 2013 season.
“He had to go through the ups and downs his very first year,” Strode said of that 4.77-ERA season for a last-place team. “We’re talking about a young man that got it on this level. The end of that first year, in September, you started to see the flower blossom. And from that point he’s been moving forward.”
Rondon said he’s “blessed” to have been drafted by the Cubs just after he’d begun to pitch competitively again in winter ball in 2012, after that second surgery to repair the bone that broke at the spot where the hole had been drilled from the Tommy John surgery.
He still has the large scar from the twice-opened spot on his elbow, and a screw in the bone.
All the pain from that second rehab, the months of throwing when he didn’t want to see a radar number – all the uncertainty was worth landing in this spot, he said, with the potential to help finish some of the most important games this franchise might ever play. Whether it’s in the eighth or ninth innings.
Rondon finds it hard to imagine where he might be if he’d quit in 2011.
“Working in Venezuela,” he said. “I don’t know.
“Sometimes life tricks you a little bit in those moments.”