10/05/2004 9:25 PM ET
Lieber to get ball in Game 2
Hard work after Tommy John surgery pays off
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
|Jon Lieber missed the 2003 season after Tommy John surgery, but 2004 has been much brighter. (Bill Kostroun/AP)
NEW YORK -- When the Yankees were making their perennial postseason run last year, Jon Lieber was vigorously rehabilitating his right elbow far away in Tampa, Fla. While Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were trying to pitch the Yankees to another World Series title, Lieber trying to resurrect his career in anonymity.
The Yankees signed Lieber knowing full well he would miss the 2003 season because of Tommy John surgery. With Clemens threatening retirement and Pettitte an impending free agent, Lieber was signed as security for the 2004 season. Before his surgery, he was considered a dependable, inning-eater who could stabilize the Bombers' rotation.
With the acquisition of Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, Lieber was again overshadowed and slated to be the No. 4 starter. Lieber's hard work and perseverance, however, has catapulted him to the No. 2 starter in the Yankees' playoff rotation and he will make his postseason debut on Wednesday, opposing Minnesota's Brad Radke at Yankee Stadium.
Lieber had a productive season for the Yankees, going 14-8 with a 4.33 ERA and doing what he does best, working fast, pounding the strike zone and inducing ground balls. Lieber doesn't have many tricks, but proved he is a fast healer.
"Well this is what I have been waiting for, for 11 years now," he said before Game 1 of the Division Series. "This is what it's all about. And it could not happen at a better place than New York City and Yankee Stadium. And to actually be here and be part of that, especially after going through Tommy John surgery really is something special."
Last season, Yankee manager Joe Torre would get occasional reports on Lieber's progress. Tommy John surgery, or elbow ligament replacement surgery, replaces the shredded elbow ligament with one from another part of the body. To rebuild the elbow takes several months and then comes the throwing and actually trying to regain velocity.
|American League Leaders
Walks per nine innings
|J. Lieber, NYY
|B. Radke, MIN
|C. Schilling, BOS
|C. Silva, MIN
|M. Buerhle, CWS
|Tim Hudson, OAK
It's a surgery that's become common amongst pitchers and some as young as their late teens undergo the process. But it is a risk. Some pitchers never regain their velocity or command. For control pitchers such as Lieber, regaining those two are crucial.
Lieber said he began feeling 100 percent in August and the numbers show that he gained momentum as the season progressed. He was 5-0 in September with a 3.12 ERA, by far the Yankees' top starter.
"It's a lonely rehab," Torre said. "And when you get back, I'm sure you have some doubts. But by midseason on, he just felt like he's been all the way back."
During the season, Lieber said he leaned on teammate and Tommy John survivor Tom Gordon, who had the surgery in December 1999 and missed the 2000 season. Gordon has regained his velocity and emerged as one of the league's top setup men.
"I think really the one person that comes to mind that's really helped me is (Tom Gordon)," Lieber said. "And to be able to have him there and seeing the struggles that I was going through this year ... he told me, along with some other people, just wait until the end of August, September and you are going to feel your strongest."
The Yankees desperately need a pinpoint Lieber in the postseason. No. 1 starter Mike Mussina finished strong after a midseason slump but Brown is still recovering from a broken left hand and is a question mark, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez has an ailing shoulder and might miss the Game 3 start while Javier Vazquez won just four of 14 starts and finished with a 6.95 ERA in the second half.
So once again, Lieber has emerged from the shadows to have an important role on this team.
"This is postseason and this is Yankee Stadium," Torre said. "He seems ready for the challenge. He's going to have plenty of support because I don't think there's a soul on this ballclub that doesn't pull for him."
Gary Washburn is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.