Whenever Michael Wuertz would sit and watch baseball on TV with his young son Braxton last summer, the boy would ask, “Why aren’t you out there, Dad?”
It was hard to explain to a 4-year-old.
It was hard to explain to anyone, child or grown-up.
For the first time in 15 years — basically for the first time in his adult life — Wuertz wasn’t playing baseball because of a couple of “freak” injuries that knocked his pitching career for a loop.
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First there was a hamstring injury early in 2011, followed by an inexplicable thumb injury on his pitching hand later the same season.
The result is that the right-handed reliever, who was lights out for the Oakland A’s in 2009, posting eye-popping numbers as a top setup man out of the bullpen, was down and out in 2012. He didn’t pitch at all, not even in the minors.
Now, like so many others in spring training camp for the Marlins, Wuertz is hoping to salvage his baseball career.
“I compare this situation here to my first year in Oakland in 2009,” Wuertz said. “It was a lot of young kids and veteran guys, like you have here with [Placido] Polanco and Juan Pierre. In Oakland in ’09, there were a ton of talented arms and a ton of talented players, and that’s the same exact thing I’ve seen in this clubhouse. And you looked three or four years later and they’re [the A’s] winning 95 games.”
Actually, 94. And a division title to go with it.
Which was what made last season particularly difficult for Wuertz.
He had spent the three previous years with the A’s, and now he was at home watching them earn a playoff spot.
“Obviously, it was real hard to sit and watch baseball games,” he said. “As a fan of the game, it was fun to watch. But the competitor inside you, you know that you should be out there. That, for me, was the hardest.”
After spending his first five major league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Wuertz joined the A’s in 2009 and turned in a spectacular year.
He went 6-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 74 relief appearances. Even more impressive was a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4 1/2 whiffs for every free pass. Wuertz struck out 102 in 78 2/3 innings.
But Wuertz couldn’t duplicate those numbers.
In 2010, he dealt with shoulder tendinitis, perhaps as a result of over usage the year before, and totaled only 39 2/3 innings.
In 2011, he injured his hamstring during a stretching exercise on the second day of the season, then dealt with an odd thumb injury at the end.
“It just kept swelling up in the padding of my thumb and I’d lose feeling in the ball,” he said. “It was hard to grip the ball.”
The result: Wuertz totaled only 33 2/3 innings and finished with a 6.68 ERA.
“When you put up poor numbers like I did in 2011, the phone’s not going to be ringing off the hook [from interested teams],” Wuertz said of the following year when he was hoping to land on somewhere else. “They were freak injuries. Dealing with the hamstring and the thumb injury that popped up out of nowhere, it was kind of one of those weird things.”
Cincinnati signed Wuertz to a minor-league deal, but the lingering injuries prevented him from ever pitching for them, either at the major- or minor-league level. Wuertz went home to Arizona for the summer.
“Spent some quality time with my wife and my son,” Wuertz said. “I got to spend the summer doing stuff I hadn’t done in 14, 15 years — playing a little golf and just spending time being a dad.”
Now, at the age of 34, he’s trying to get back on track.
“I think it was a good thing for me to take a step back and kind of reevaluate myself,” Wuertz said of his time off. “I know it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I feel good about where I am.”