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T.J. SIMERS

Jason Schmidt earns his next paycheck

You weren't sure if each pitch would be his last, but the Dodgers pitcher more than earned his first victory in over two years.

July 21, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

Just before the game begins the Dodgers announce they're going to roll someone out in a wheelchair to throw the first pitch.

The perfect entrance for Jason Schmidt.

Turns out, it's Frank Parker, an 87-year-old Guadalcanal veteran tossing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Now I know what you're thinking. What was the velocity on Parker's first pitch in comparison to Schmidt's?

Well, I begin writing this with no idea how Schmidt's night is going to be. I'm guessing in 15 minutes or so, we'll know.

Once it ends, the Dodgers' side of the story will be easy to tell. He either remains an all-time blunder, just one win for a $47-million investment, or a makeover project still in progress.

As Manager Joe Torre says, "no sentimentality," the Dodgers are in the business of trying to make the playoffs and will go to someone like Jeff Weaver if Schmidt's arm falls off.

How would you feel if you were replaced by Weaver?

"I'll feel myself throwing some pitches with him," admits Torre in a sentimental moment that apparently cannot be resisted, or maybe he's afraid he might have to go with Weaver. "I'll want him to do well."

On another upbeat note, Torre says the Dodgers won't start the game with a reliever already warming up in the bullpen as Schmidt takes the mound.

As for the human side of this story, that's something else. It's been 764 days since Schmidt last pitched in the big leagues, he is now 36 years old, a certified gamer at one time but most recently broken down and lost in the minors.

He's undergone surgery, rehab assignment after rehab assignment only to be shut down so the pain might subside, and yet here he is, "with no idea," he says, how he's going to do.

He says he never talks before a game he's going to pitch, but when you call a columnist's Albuquerque hotel room at 2 in the morning while making like the desk clerk and complaining about a loud TV, obviously rules don't count for much.

"Without a doubt I feel like a rookie," Schmidt, the prankster, says before the game. "I'm nervous. I have no idea what to expect."

He's put so much time into trying to find "command" of his pitches, and maybe another mile or so on his fastball, while waiting to see if his arm will remain attached.

Time to really test it.

First batter up, Willy Taveras, 14 years old when Schmidt made his major league debut.

First pitch, 80 mph for a strike followed by an 82-mph strike. The scoreboard calls them changeups. We might find later they're fastballs.

The third is clocked at 81, the fourth at 81, the fifth at 80, the next at 83 before registering an 87, someone joking a soda can must have fallen from the upper deck in front of the radar gun.

By now the count is 3-and-2, Taveras hitting the next offering off the top of the wall in left-center for a triple.

Jerry Hairston Jr. follows with a double off the left-field wall, Joey Votto then blasting a single off the right-field wall. The only question now, is it some kind of major league record the first three batters in a game hitting each wall in the place?

Sixteen minutes after he throws his first pitch in more than two years, the Dodgers have someone warming up in the bullpen.

So much for any made-for-TV movie, "Holy Schmidt! He's Back."

The inning mercifully ends with the Reds only scoring three runs, Schmidt never throwing anything harder than 87 and disappearing down the runway leading away from the dugout. No indication if he will keep going -- down the runway or back onto the field.

All that work. The pain, the uncertainty, the memories of when things went so well -- what must it feel like to be left behind in 2007, then again in 2008 and through the first 92 games this season?

For this? To look like a batting practice pitcher in Dodger Stadium? What next, slow-pitch softball? Sure, everyone out there is saying they'd gladly change places, pain, uncertainty and whatever for $47 million over three years, thrilled to do it.

But the human side of the story really is something else. What if you couldn't do what you did better than most everyone else previously, now looking as if you could never do it at all? Maybe you haven't lost the game yet, but it's pretty obvious you've lost it.

Then the Dodgers score four runs, sending you right back to the mound, genuine concern whether the walls in Dodger Stadium can take such a beating.

The Reds get nothing in the second, third and fourth, and who among you watching thought he could last this long?

Manny Ramirez hits a two-run homer, the Dodgers lead, 6-3, and maybe Schmidt doesn't have much on the ball or really figures to help this team, but on the human side don't you just have to pull for three more outs and a chance for Schmidt to win his second game in three years?

One out. Hairston hits a line drive to center. Maybe the Dodgers didn't get much out of him for $47 million, but tonight they're getting everything he has. Two out. Votto hits a line drive to center. As Greg Maddux imitations go, this is pretty good. A single to right and there is activity in the bullpen.

Three outs, and Schmidt shows he still has it as a gritty competitor, digging deep at a point when everyone else was probably just embarrassed for him.

That might be all he has left, which might not be enough if the Dodgers continue to wheel him out there. But for one more night and what it must have meant to Schmidt, good for him.

--

NOW THE vacation begins as word comes the Sparks have raised the price of media dinners from $7 to $20. I guess they just don't want you watching the Sparks on a full stomach.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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