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About Schmidt, there's still much up in the air

March 30, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM PHOENIX — Jason Schmidt walks out of the Dodgers clubhouse Sunday morning, only to hear Page 2 shouting to him: "You better pitch well today."

Schmidt reverses course, walks over to a golf cart and picks up a defibrillator: "I got this for you in case I do," he says.

A WEEK to go in spring training and you know the Dodgers still have a pitching problem when Schmidt and Page 2 get together and Page 2 is the one throwing the high, hard ones.

"Are you finished?"

"Do you ever feel guilty about ripping off the Dodgers after getting paid $48 million to do almost nothing?"

"So far you have one win and one home run as a Dodger, which is more impressive?"

If there is any fight left in Schmidt, it's now reserved for those stints on the mound every five days, which have become as much as anything, physical auditions.

"The last two weeks, I've felt better than any time in the past four years," he says, and why not? He hasn't used it much the past year or so.

Once upon a time, he was one of the game's dominating pitchers, but he's only human now, vulnerable and fighting at best to be the fifth starter on a team with a shaky rotation.

"It's been embarrassing for me," he says, already advised he won't be with the team for the start of the season. "When I'm out there, I feel like someone is throwing and dressed in my uniform, but it's not me. I'm embarrassed every time I go to the mound."

First inning Sunday, and he strikes out the leadoff hitter. But then doesn't everyone pitching against the Padres? He gets a second out and then strikes out Brian Giles. An inning of hope to hang on.

"I don't think I've let one ball go 100% yet, but maybe I was 90% in the first inning," he says. "I was feeling a little nervous, which is a good thing. It's been awhile since I pitched in an 'A' game, and it was a decent crowd. It was fun."

Right now, it's all about pain and velocity, no pain and more velocity. In his prime he was mowing them down at 95 mph.

"I feel I can pitch as long as I have command; I can pitch at 88 or 89 mph," he says. "At 85, I don't know -- unless I suddenly become Greg Maddux."

Manager Joe Torre checks the numbers on Schmidt's Sunday outing and says he hit 90 three times, 88 and 89 for the most part in the first inning.

"I think he will have what it takes to pitch again," Torre says in throwing his faith behind Schmidt. "But when that will be, I don't know."

Eventually, it will be all about command, and he has none now. "I was really loose coming into the game but the looser I get the wilder I get," he says.

The fact he was standing on the mound, though, was progress. Every bit as big a bust as Andruw Jones, it was Jones' head that betrayed him, while it's Schmidt's body that has let him down.

For the record, though, incredibly Schmidt has one more home run as a Dodger in Dodger Stadium than Jones as a Dodger, so in rating busts, Schmidt isn't looking so bad.

The same cannot be said for the Dodgers. The Dodgers had the former assistant to the GM in San Francisco in Ned Colletti and a new trainer hired from the Giants in Stan Conte. But as the story goes, everyone in baseball knew Schmidt wasn't the same pitcher except the team that should have had the inside information.

Schmidt says there was nothing wrong, Colletti says his "velo" was down a bit and so were the Dodgers' prospects of having a good pitching staff, Schmidt offering the pitching know-how to account for both deficiencies.

But his arm fell off almost as soon as he put on a Dodgers uniform, the radar gun turned off at one point so it wouldn't become so obvious the team signed a slow-pitch free agent to a $48-million contract.

He was 1-4, and thanks for the memories, not pitching for the Dodgers in a game that counts since June 5, 2007.

Second inning here, and he's wild. The Padres score two runs, the third inning goes a little better before being pulled in the fourth.

"It was a step forward," Schmidt says, smiling, because it's better than the alternative.

Torre takes notice. "I haven't talked to him, but just watching him around here he's obviously feeling better about where he is."

JUST IMAGINE what it must be like to have pride, having done it already on the grandest stage, pitching in All-Star games but now throwing to minor leaguers on a back field.

He's getting paid very well to deal with it, but how many setbacks, rehab assignments and MRI tests before there's no more hope?

"I've psychologically chewed myself up trying to come back, rushing it every day from day one," he says, quite aware that he's been a punch line the last two years for anyone wanting to document Dodgers blunders. "Hey, I can't erase what's happened."

He still wants to make a difference here, he says, but he knows how difficult that will be, rehabbing and maybe getting thumped on occasion while working to come back, so little room for such error when the games begin to count.

"I'm tough on myself," Schmidt says, setting out each game to throw a no-hitter, "and when you do that, most games you end up unhappy," he says with a grin.

Now he's in the final year of a contract, 36 years old, father of three, and as he says, "I'm a dad No. 1," which explains why he's also contemplating retirement at season's end.

"I'm at the crossroads in many ways," he says, best-case scenario probably returning to the Dodgers at the end of April, no one right now knowing how much he's going to have to offer, including Schmidt.

If you've gotten a look at some of the other pitchers around here, that's still probably a huge improvement.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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