VERO BEACH, Fla. — It wasn't so much the arm strength that Tim Belcher missed; it was that zip at the end of his pitches, that finishing snap of his fingers that gave his fastball late movement.
Belcher, the former Angel pitcher, underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor muscle in his throwing elbow in early December, 1999, the same procedure Dodger pitchers Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby are recovering from this spring.
Like Brown and Ashby, doctors gave Belcher, who was 38 at the time, a five-month recovery window. But Belcher had numerous setbacks in 2000, he opened the season on the disabled list and remained there until June 17.
After a two-week stint in the big leagues, Belcher returned to the disabled list on July 3 and wasn't activated again until Sept. 8. He went 4-5 with a 6.86 earned-run average in nine starts that season but was never the same. He retired last spring.
"My velocity was adequate, but there was no life on the ball when it got to the plate," said Belcher, who now works in the Cleveland Indians' front office. "That's what I lacked post-surgery. How much of that was a product of the procedure and how much of it was age, I don't know. But the act of finishing a pitch is where I'd be concerned."
Knowing Brown and Ashby are "workout fanatics," knowing the two right-handers are in excellent shape, Belcher believes both will recover fully. The Dodgers, backed by the opinion of team physician Frank Jobe and physical therapist Pat Screnar, are confident both will be ready for the season.
"But you're always concerned when a player has surgery, because you never know what's going to happen," General Manager Dan Evans said. "We're hoping the organization is lucky and both are OK, but we believe they're going to be OK because of the respect we have for the people giving us that information. They've had a solid history of being right."
The 34-year-old Ashby, who has two years and $15.5 million remaining on his contract, had surgery June 15, so he is seven months into the recovery process. But Brown, who will turn 37 on March 15 and has four years and $60 million left on his contract, had surgery Sept. 27, putting him only 41/2 months into rehabilitation.
Dodger reliever Jesse Orosco, who turns 45 in April, had the same procedure in 2000, and although he was pitching five months later, he said it took 11 months for him to return to full strength.
"Coming back in four months is pretty ambitious," Orosco said. "Kevin has to look at himself ... sometimes you have to bite your lip. If it takes a couple extra weeks to get ready, you might need a couple extra weeks. The most important thing is to not go out and pitch too early and end up back on the DL."
The Dodgers are aware of Brown's stubbornness when it comes to injuries--the ace felt he could pitch the 2001 season opener despite an Achilles' tendon strain that forced him to the DL--and they plan to monitor him closely.
"That was a very aggressive procedure he had, and it was the first time he's had [arm] surgery," Manager Jim Tracy said. "He's a very intelligent man and will know his limitations. If he needs to back off, he will. We will not push him to the point where we lose him for a period of time. We're going to take it very slow."
Brown, who is expected in camp today or Tuesday, has been throwing vigorously for a few weeks, but he won't throw off a mound until later this week. Ashby threw off the mound five times before reporting to camp, throwing fastballs and sinkers only, and has had two bullpen sessions in the last three days.
"It feels fine now, but the main thing is to mix in curveballs and the rest of my pitches," Ashby said. "Hopefully I'll stay away from the one pitch that irritates it. Right now, I couldn't feel better. I'm just trying to build my arm strength."
Tracy is encouraged by Ashby's velocity, the depth of his sinker and the freedom with which he is throwing. Ashby hasn't aired out his fastball yet, but from his pre-camp bullpen sessions with minor league instructor Travis Barbary and his bullpen sessions in camp, he's pleased with the feel of his pitches.
"Travis said my pitches seemed to have more life, so who knows, maybe they put some extra parts in me," Ashby said. "When I'm on the mound, I'm not going to be thinking about getting hurt. As far as finishing pitches, I've felt pretty good throwing 95% so far."
Belcher felt the mental hurdles of overcoming surgery were as difficult as the physical ones.
"Kevin and Andy take great care of themselves, so the physical aspects of the comeback should be fine; the X-factor is the mental," Belcher said. "It's human nature. The flexor tendon can be a real sensitive area, and it's hard to do something that hurts so much the last time you did it.... These things are hard to predict."