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Originally published Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 12:53 PM

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Steve Kelley

Chad Cordero trying to pitch his way back to big leagues

Former All-Star closer is pitching with Class A Everett AquaSox

Seattle Times staff columnist

EVERETT — The sun still washes the deep green outfield. The crack of the bat sounds like static electricity in the late afternoon breeze. Music, as eclectic as the players on the field, plays on the public address system. Players lope in the outfield, shagging flies, a scene as eternal as the game itself.

In right field in this stadium in one of baseball's backwaters, Chad Cordero, a former All-Star closer, does his part, picking up baseballs and lobbing them to a collection area in short center field.

This is a ritual Cordero has repeated thousands of afternoons in more than a hundred ballparks. This is part of his summer, part of his life.

"This is awesome," Cordero said, sitting on a metal bench in the Everett bullpen earlier this week. "Just to get my arm back in shape to do this again, to be part of a team and actually pitching some games, even if it's short-season A ball, it's still a lot of fun."

Just a few seasons ago, Cordero was one of the deadliest closers in baseball. He saved a National League-best 47 games for Washington in 2005, saved 29 the next season and 37 just two seasons ago.

But early in 2008, his velocity mysteriously dropped into the high 70s. He remembers pitching in a game against the Mets when he was getting hitters out, throwing 78, 79 mph.

Cordero didn't feel hurt. He was throwing pain free, but eventually he discovered he was pitching with a torn labrum.

"I couldn't understand what was going wrong," he said. "My arm was feeling great. My mechanics were the same, but the ball wasn't coming out. I just kept thinking, 'What is going on?' I didn't feel like myself."

He had surgery to repair his torn labrum in July 2008 and now, for the first time in his young life, Cordero, 27, has been forced to recognize his baseball mortality.

"At times, in '05, I felt like I could pitch every day, forever," he said. "But it doesn't happen like that."

But Cordero, a first-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 2003, loves the game so much he has been willing to start over. Last spring, he signed a one-year minor-league contract with the Mariners.

They had hoped he would be ready to pitch for the big club by the end of August. Instead he's in Everett, still struggling with his velocity.

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"He still has a ways to go," M's general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "We may be looking at next year. We brought him up [to Everett] just to see what he'd do against real competition. But I think there's still work to be done here. You don't know where he can get to and if that's enough."

At this point Cordero is a longshot. The Mariners have stabilized their bullpen and are grooming Phillippe Aumont and Josh Fields to add even more depth.

But Cordero is a player worth rooting for. A pitcher who was so good it would be a sin to quit on him. He's a guy who loves the game and is proving he'll do anything, go anywhere, to get back into it.

"You won't find a better guy," said Oregon baseball coach George Horton, who was Cordero's college coach at Cal State-Fullerton. "He's on my short list of my all-time favorite human beings. Great teammate. Great kid. Great to people off the field. He is, I guess you'd say, a non-egotistical big-leaguer."

When Horton saw Cordero in Arizona this spring he told Cordero, "You have to get angry. You have to get ticked. That's when you pitch your best. You need to get that adrenaline rush. Get that competitive juice back."

"He's mild-mannered," Horton said, "almost lethargic, until he gets into a situation where the game is on the line. Then it's almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of situation. You can see in his eyes that he just changes. But apparently, right now, he's not getting there with that adrenaline rush."

Cordero has been hurled back in time, to the beginning of his pro career. He spent most of this season in the heat of Peoria, Ariz., at the Mariners' training facility, doing the monotonous rehab work.

For the first month and a half of the season, when he threw simulated games, he couldn't push the radar gun above 80.

"When I was throwing 80, 81, it was in my mind that I might never be able to get the velocity back up and never make it back," he said. "I had to force myself not to think about it and remind myself that a lot of guys have been through this. The process is going to take longer than I might want it to.

"It's been frustrating, but right now, it's all about getting back to the major leagues. I still have a little ways to go, but it's actually feeling a lot better than it was when I first signed here. I know I can still do it, but just being out on that mound again feels good."

In his first four outings with Everett, Cordero allowed six hits and two runs in four innings. He had one save and blew another save opportunity. He said he still has to be more consistent with his velocity. At his best he's touching 87, 88. More often he is at 84 or 85.

"I'm almost there," he said. "This type of surgery, it usually takes between 12 and 18 months, and I'm 13 months out. I keep telling myself to keep thinking positive and one day I will be back, whether it's this year, next year or two years. All this hard work will be worth it."

He uses the memory of his seasons in Washington as motivation. There was a time when, even with bad Nationals teams, he was close to a sure thing in the ninth inning. He doesn't forget that.

"That year [2005] in Washington was the most fun I've ever had," he said. "To be able to go to an All-Star Game, then follow that up with pitching in the World Baseball Classic. I want to get back to that level again. The end result of this rehab, hopefully, is for me to get back up there and start having a blast. But being down here and just pitching again, that's a lot of fun, too."

It's the sunshine again. It's the 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate. It's the uniform, the crowd, the game, the possibilities.

"To get back on the mound again, even in short season, it makes you feel good," he said. "I appreciate it more because you never know when your last game might be. I've learned to take advantage of every day that I'm out there."

And every pitch he throws now, Cordero believes, moves him closer to his goal.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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