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ALL-STAR GAME AT PITTSBURGH /` TONIGHT, 5 PDT, CH.
11

It Touched A Nerve

Penny's injury made him look at himself and his dedication, which led to him becoming the Dodgers' ace

July 11, 2006|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

The sun hadn't yet risen above the dense stands of oak and hickory. Brad Penny set down his crossbow, started a campfire and rubbed his hands together. He looked into the flames and wondered where the fire in his belly had gone.

The Dodgers had traded for Penny a few months earlier, given up one of their most popular players to get him. But in his second start with his new team, Penny hopped off the mound yelping like a coyote cub who'd leaned into an electric fence.

Doctors said a nerve in his biceps had acted up, that it was the strangest thing they'd ever seen. All Penny knew was that he couldn't pitch.

The season over and nothing ahead but hunting and fishing in the hills surrounding his eastern Oklahoma home, he was terrified of losing what he'd taken for granted all his life -- country hardball.

*

Less than two years later Penny will take the mound as the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star game. Worries about his health are over and he's the ace of the Dodgers' staff with a 10-2 record and 2.91 earned-run average.

As for that much-criticized trade, it's at least a wash, and Penny curls his lip in a wry smile at the mention of it. His catcher tonight will be Paul Lo Duca, the fan favorite the Dodgers shipped to the Florida Marlins as the centerpiece of a six-player deal.

LoDuca eventually moved to the New York Mets and the other players have receded and scattered. The Dodgers have a new catcher of the future.

And they still have Penny, whose transformation from indolent underachiever to hard-working stopper has justified the three-year, $25-million contract extension the Dodgers gave him a year ago.

"He crossed the bridge from being a young player with potential to being a guy who knows he's counted on to perform," said Roy Smith, the Dodgers' vice president of scouting and player development.

"He's matured, and he's delivering."

The makeover began with a shock, the one in Penny's biceps that ended his Aug. 8, 2004 start in the second inning. He tried to come back six weeks later but felt the pain again.

The injury may or may not have had anything to do with his flagging work ethic, but he blamed himself anyway, sitting around the campfire on cold fall mornings vowing to get his 6-foot-4, 275-pound body in shape.

"I got lazy and the injury woke me up," he said. "It makes you sick lying in bed at night or sitting with a fishing pole in your hand wondering."

Penny began working with personal trainer Mark Verstegen and nutritionist Sari Mellman. He reported to spring training in 2005 with a new look -- and a more determined outlook.

Still, he was uncertain whether the nerve injury would reoccur. He didn't pitch with complete confidence until May, and about the time he hit his stride, the Dodgers lost their footing, tumbling in the standings.

Penny didn't respond well to the team's demise. He'd signed his extension in June, and when the losing began, his attention span suffered. His passion became buying thoroughbreds, and he spent so much time in the clubhouse poring over bloodstock auction guides that one day a teammate walked by and said, "If the opposing lineup was on that sheet, he'd throw a no-hitter."

Penny eventually accumulated a stable of four horses, including one early success story, Excess Temptations. He bought the thoroughbred for $50,000 and it has earned about $115,000 in three victories.

But after leaving his last start Sept. 21 at Arizona after only 10 pitches because of muscle tightness in his right forearm, Penny needed another round of early-morning therapy sessions at his 2,200-acre ranch near Bartlesville, Okla.

He decided the Dodgers' won-lost record shouldn't have an impact on his focus. And he'd seen other pitchers lose their edge after getting big contracts. He didn't want to join that crowd.

"The security is great and it makes it easier to pitch," he said. "But how often do you see a guy sign for a lot of money, then not perform until it is the last year of his contract? It makes you wonder."

Penny looked at the back of his baseball card and realized he hadn't accomplished a whole lot yet. Sure, he'd won two games in the 2003 World Series and celebrated the championship with the rest of the Marlins. But his lifetime record was barely over .500 and his earned-run average a pedestrian 4.00.

"I signed a contract for millions, and that makes me want to be better, do everything I can to be better," he said.

His off-season regimen became even more intense and again he reported to spring training with fresh motivation. Penny vowed to earn every cent of his paycheck. He'd leave horse racing at the track.

He'd become the Dodgers' horse.

*

Penny is an admitted loner most comfortable around long-time friends and his family -- his dad rode a front-end loader at a Tulsa sand plant and worked in sales for a tobacco company.

Yet he has assumed a leadership role with the Dodgers, reaching out to rookies and foreign players, basically anyone he believes needs help feeling comfortable.

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