Ailene Voisin

August 25, 2013

Ailene Voisin: A's Anderson labors on road back

Here it is late August, with the pennant races intensifying, the A's in a potentially season-crushing slump, and there is no dancing around Brett Anderson's predicament.

Ailene Voisin

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STOCKTON – Here it is late August, with the pennant races intensifying, the A's in a potentially season-crushing slump, and there is no dancing around Brett Anderson's predicament.

The left arm seems OK.

The right foot seems OK.

But in his latest rehabilitation start Thursday night for the Stockton Ports, the A's Advanced-A minor-league team, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound left-hander – the one-time Oakland ace who would be docked for chronic absenteeism were he still in school – was hit hard and hit often.

After striking out the first three San Jose Giants, he gave up a home run to right, walked a hitter on four pitches, then was tagged with a line drive into the left-field seats. He threw 63 pitches, allowed five earned runs, struck out six. The curveball was up. His command of the fastball was erratic. He only fooled a few batters with his famously wicked slider.

This wasn't the performance Anderson hoped would accelerate his return to the rotation, and he's growing increasingly restless. For the better part of a second consecutive season, the Midland, Texas, native has been forced to watch a healthy chunk of the good times from the training room. He has spent so many months on the disabled list – and participating in rehab assignments at Raley Field and Banner Island Ballpark – that it's easy to forget he's only 25 years old. It's almost easy to forget him.

Side strains. Elbow inflammation. Knee sprain. Tommy John surgery. The freaky foot fracture that has sidelined him since April. Anderson, a bright student during his school days, knows more about human anatomy than many incoming med students.

"I blame it on Brett's mother (Sandra)," joked his father, Frank, the pitching coach at the University of Houston. "Crazy injuries. She always gives me a bad time because he's so tall. She has sisters that are over 6 feet. I'm only 5-foot-8. But my side of the family is more athletic."

Coach Anderson has a wry sense of humor, not unlike his son. But concern about Brett's ongoing physical travails quickly dampens the parental mood. The father is a coach, not a medic. Before injuries began to dominate the cellphone conversations between father and son, the younger Anderson fulfilled and perhaps exceeded expectations. He was the A's top pitching prospect in 2008, set an Oakland rookie record for strikeouts (150) in 2009 and, over time, emerged as the ace on an impressive young staff that featured Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey.

Of that group, Anderson is the only survivor. He's expected to rejoin the A's on Monday in Detroit and could start as soon as Tuesday, though Tommy Milone is tentatively scheduled to return to the rotation that day.

The situation – the need to look hard at Anderson – is exacerbated by the standings. The A's, who are 16-17 since the All-Star break, have been overtaken by Texas in the American League West and are being squeezed in their bid for one of the two wild-card spots. The feel-good times and opportunism have been displaced by miscues and slumps.

With the exception of closer Grant Balfour, the bullpen is struggling to hold leads. The outfielders aren't hitting and are dropping catchable balls (see Yoenis Cespedes). Injuries to catchers John Jaso and Derek Norris prompted the return Friday of light-hitting, if defensively sound, Kurt Suzuki.

In other words, the brutal trip and the calendar dictate that if the A's don't regain their early-season swagger, they'll join the Giants on the sidelines in October.

A healthy, effective Anderson, of course, would provide an immediate boost.

Last year, he made six regular-season starts after returning in superb shape in August following elbow surgery. After missing a few weeks with a strained side, he tossed a dazzling two-hitter over six innings against Detroit that extended the A.L. Division Series.

Despite his size, Anderson doesn't overpower. He's sneaky-dominant. His fastballs reach the low 90s. His curves tease and torment, setting up a slider that is downright nasty.

As he sat in the clubhouse Thursday in Stockton remembering his memorable playoff debut, Anderson shook his head.

Visibly discouraged, his eyes mostly downcast, he traced the bruises on his arms with his fingers. He tugged on a rubber band around his right wrist. He reached down and pulled at his socks.

"I've got some quirks, twitches," he said, forcing a smile. "I'm always fidgeting. Baseball players are wired differently. Now that I'm back, it comes back in spurts."

About being so close – he drove solo from the Bay Area to Stockton – and so far away?

"My health is first and foremost," Anderson continued, "and I'm not feeling any discomfort in my arm or my foot. So that's a good sign. My command is still a work in progress, but there were some things I did better than Saturday in Sacramento. If I can come in and contribute like last year "

With that, he stood up, said goodbye, then went off to soak that left elbow and that right foot.

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

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