Vance Worley was back in Northern California on Monday night, pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates at AT&T Park in front of a group of family and friends he estimated at 30 to 40, judging by the number of text messages on his phone afterward.
“I told some of them, ‘I didn’t know you were coming,’ ” Worley said Tuesday, smiling. “They said, ‘I didn’t want to bother you.’ ”
In a more figurative sense as well, Worley, the Sacramento native and McClatchy High School graduate, was back – back in the majors, with his four-hit shutout of the Giants looking like the latest development in a turnaround season for the 26-year-old.
Following his first career shutout, Worley is 4-1 this season with a 2.54 ERA. Since he joined the Pirates’ starting rotation June 15, six of his seven starts have been quality. He threw just 100 pitches in Monday’s complete game, facing the minimum number of batters through seven innings and not allowing a runner past first until Hunter Pence’s triple with one out in the ninth.
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Just over a year ago, Worley was facing hitters in Triple A. He began the 2013 season as the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day starter, but he lasted less than two months in the Twins’ rotation before being sent to the minors with a 1-5 record and a 7.21 ERA.
The difference, Worley said, involves a key mechanical issue discovered by the Pirates and a mental recalibration that has the right-hander feeling “back to myself.”
In late 2012, following his second full big-league season, Worley had surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. The Philadelphia Phillies traded him to the Twins in December, and Worley said he was healthy when he showed up to spring training – but his mechanics were not.
“I was still throwing with the mechanics that I had before I got hurt, and I was protecting my elbow,” Worley said. “So I never got the ball down in the zone. Everything was up in the zone and got hit.”
Worley said he found a way to “cheat” with those mechanics last year, but his problems keeping pitches down persisted into this spring and the Twins traded him to the Pirates in March for cash considerations – a move that quickly proved fateful.
Worley reported to extended spring training with the Pirates, who had film of every step of his pitching career from high school to the majors. He said he studied that with Pirates special assistant Jim Benedict – whom Worley called a pitching “guru” – and threw a few bullpen sessions, after which Benedict said: “Right here, this is all you’ve got to do.”
Benedict told Worley he was “flying open” with his front shoulder, which was affecting the angle of his pitching arm. His instruction: “Stay closed, pull down (on your follow-through), have your angle back,” Worley said. “Within a month I was back to myself. It was amazing.
“I wish I could’ve figured it out on my own and not had to go through all that. But at the same time, everybody hits a bump in the road. It’s just a matter of when.”
For a while, those bumps seemed to come hard and often. While pitching with the bone chips in his elbow in 2012, Worley also had two family members diagnosed with cancer. His now-wife’s father – he got married last November – died last year on the same day Worley made a start in Boston; he found out later when he returned to his hotel.
“At that point, everything kind of started going downhill,” said Worley, who was sent to Triple A shortly thereafter and later battled a second-half shoulder problem. “Once I got shut down, it was, all right, I’m done with baseball for this year. Take some time off and worry about the wedding, get healthy, go into 2014.”
So far it’s been more than a turn of the calendar, with Worley resembling the pitcher who finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting with the Phillies in 2011 both in delivery and results. While he stopped short of calling Monday’s game the best start of his career, he did acknowledge it “means a lot” coming with family and friends in the stands, including his parents and younger brother.
Being in the Phillies’ organization in 2010, he added, when the Giants beat Philadelphia in the NLCS en route to a World Series championship: “I had to come home and listen to a lot of people talk. So I think about that every time I pitch to these guys.”
Worley said he still lives mostly in Philadelphia. He and his wife are expecting their first child in October, when Worley could either be home for the winter or in the playoffs with the Pirates, who as of Tuesday were 11/2 games behind Milwaukee in the N.L. Central.
“She says it’s a win-win,” Worley said. “If you’re in the playoffs, great, and if not, you’ll be there for the baby’s birth. So we’re just taking it one day at a time.”