PHOENIX -- Flamethrowing Brewers right-hander Santo Manzanillo took the mound Thursday and threw his latest bullpen session at Maryvale Baseball Park, an otherwise routine rite of Spring Training that in Manzanillo's case qualified as something quite remarkable.Back in December, doctors set a target date of March 1 -- Thursday -- for Manzanillo to resume throwing after a nasty traffic accident that left him unable to move his right arm. Instead, the burly reliever found himself only a half-step behind the rest of the team's pitchers, right on track to open the season in the Minors as one of Milwaukee's most promising young pitchers. "He's lucky," said another reliever in camp, left-hander Manny Parra. "He's a freak." Parra was there in the Dominican Republic on the late November morning that Manzanillo's career nearly took a tragic turn. Parra was playing catch at the Brewers' new baseball academy north of San Pedro de Macoris when the coach he was working with -- Jose Nunez -- received a frantic call.
Manzanillo had been driving a stretch of highway toward the academy at 7:30 a.m., when a truck suddenly cut him off. He swerved right, flipped his Hummer and was ejected through the sunroof. He suffered a separated shoulder and multiple lacerations."At the moment it happened, I was scared about it because I could not move my arm for a few days," said Manzanillo, with Brewers catcher Mike Rivera serving as translator. A few days? "Fifteen days," Manzanillo said. During that period, he traveled to Milwaukee to see head Brewers physician William Raasch, who provided an uplifting diagnosis. Manzanillo, who turned 23 later in December, would not need surgery. "That made me feel confident that I was going to come back and play this year," he said. That qualified as very good news to the Brewers, who count Manzanillo among their most promising arms. Working with a fastball that touches 100 mph on the radar gun, Manzanillo posted a 1.75 ERA with 17 saves and a .194 opponents' batting average in 48 relief appearances last season between Class A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. More important to club officials than his radar gun readings were other numbers, including a ratio of 2.38 strikeouts per walk. It was the best rate, by far, of Manzanillo's five Minor League seasons. Catcher Martin Maldonado has already handled two of Manzanillo's mound sessions this spring. "I wasn't expecting what I saw," Maldonado said. "He surprised me a lot. He's a strong man. I saw him last year in Double-A for a little bit so I know." Maldonado said Manzanillo's fastball sits comfortably between 96 and 98 mph, and his second-best pitch is an 85-mph changeup. He also throws a slider in the 91-mph range. MLB.com ranked him the Brewers' No. 19 prospect and ninth-best pitching prospect. The Brewers signed Manzanillo in 2005 and converted him to relief because he struggled so mightily to throw strikes, "almost to the point," assistant general manager Gord Ash said, "that he was unusable. He just couldn't throw a strike." The early numbers show that. Manzanillo walked 47 batters to 24 strikeouts in 2006 in the Arizona Rookie League, and was hammered for 24 earned runs 16 1/3 innings. He has steadily improved since then but it was been a slow process, one interrupted by Tommy John elbow surgery that cost Manzanillo the entire 2009 season. In 2011, he worked with Fred Dabney, the highly regarded pitching coach who was promoted to Triple-A Nashville this year after seven seasons at Brevard County. They made adjustments to Manzanillo's delivery that led to dramatically improved command and a career year. "He's proof that you never give up on arm strength," Ash said. "He's a tremendous prospect," Dabney said. "Like a lot of young guys, he's still a work in progress, but you see his fastball command getting better day after day. Being a power-type guy, who's to say he won't be a starter in the future? But for now, they've got him working out of the bullpen, and it works. He's a tremendous prospect. He's a huge talent." The best part is that he is healthy. "He is way ahead of schedule," Ash said. "We didn't expect him to throw until the first of March, so he's 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule. That's obviously a good thing." It's proof, Ash said, of the grey area involved in setting rehab timetables. "Everybody's different," Ash said. "I also think he's obviously excited to be [in big league camp] for the first time, determined. That probably plays into it. That's one of the things we talked to the trainers about -- making sure he's not putting himself in longer-term jeopardy by rushing now. That doesn't seem to be the case." Is Manzanillo surprised to be so far along? "Yes and no," he said. "Yes, because I started thinking of the accident and all that happened. I had doubts. No, because I worked hard to come back." At least one part of Manzanillo's story was less dramatic than originally thought. Originally, the Brewers believed that Manzanillo was still lying on the side of the road, injured, when another car pulled over to help and instead robbed him of cash and equipment. It turns out that his truck was indeed looted, but only after Manzanillo had been transported to the hospital for treatment. He lost about $300 in cash, plus a bag of gear his agent had just delivered. "All brand-new stuff," Manzanillo said, shaking his head. The equipment has since been replaced, allowing Manzanillo to continue his improbable spring. "The progress that he has made is tremendous," Dabney said. "He's got the makeup, the personality, the arm. He's just a tremendous talent."