Webb reflects on 'devastating' end to career
Former D-backs star pitcher never expected he wouldn't return from injury
PHOENIX -- Brandon Webb just turned 35 years old and by any measure should still be pitching in the big leagues for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Webb won the National League Cy Young Award in 2006 and was a 22-game winner in 2008. He was the Opening Day starter on April 6, 2009, on a wonderfully sunny day at Chase Field against the Rockies, and just like the other 197 starts in his six full big league seasons, the right-hander with an incredible sinker took the mound harboring so much hope and anticipation.
Webb was lifted after throwing 77 pitches through four innings because of a sore shoulder, having allowed six runs on six hits. He never pitched again in the Major Leagues.
"That was it," Webb said recently. "Who would have ever thought it? Nobody did, the doctors or anybody."
The mysterious shoulder injury turned out to be rotator cuff and labrum problems that couldn't be fixed despite two surgeries and seemingly endless rehab, Webb confided. It was certainly a tragedy for Webb, who is now an analyst for the D-backs on a limited amount of televised games, and it had a "devastating" impact on the D-backs. Webb was just 29 at the time of the injury.
"Devastating" was the word used in separate interviews with both D-backs president Derrick Hall and Bryan Price, the club's pitching coach back then and Reds manager now.
"It was devastating to the organization, devastating to Brandon himself," Price said. "When you think about Brandon Webb, it makes me think about when the Red Sox had Pedro Martinez in his prime and what that 230 innings of immaculate baseball meant to a team -- the dominance and the wins and the quality starts and the strikeouts, what it did for the whole staff, the numbers. [Webb] was such a special talent."
"It was terrible; it was sad to see," Hall said. "When you lose your ace like we did, it's a real kick in the gut. Losing Webby really threw us off course. That's the way we were building the team, around our pitching. That's the direction we were going. And he was as good an ace as there was in the game."
Webb's injury and inability to recover began a spiral of injuries to key D-backs players that continued Saturday night when A.J. Pollock had a bone in his right hand broken by a 92 mph Johnny Cueto pitch. After surgery this week, he's expected to be out at least two months. There was Stephen Drew's broken ankle, Cody Ross' shattered hip, double Tommy John ligament replacements surgeries for Daniel Hudson and Patrick Corbin's most recent Tommy John surgery, just to name a few.
"It's good that [Corbin] should get back; obviously an elbow is different than a shoulder," Hall said. "But Webby was a big part of our success during those mid-2000 years."
The fact that Webb couldn't make it back is still a cause of frustration. But oh, how he tried. He finished that 2009 season on the disabled list after undergoing the first of the surgeries. After consultations with doctors, the D-backs were so certain that Webb would be able to return that they exercised an $8.5 million option in his contract for 2010. But as Spring Training turned into the regular season, it became obvious that he wasn't coming back.
"It was tough. I put a lot of time and effort in for nothing," Webb said. "That was the most frustrating part, never being able to come back especially when everything seemed to look fine in the pictures and all that. That was the toughest part, to go from the top of the game, probably one of the best pitchers in the game, to be done."
Webb was never a really hard thrower, his fastball clocking in at 88-92 mph, Price recalled. But he was an innings eater, logging in a now unheard of 236 1/3 innings in 2007, the year he was 18-10 and the D-backs were swept by the Rockies in the NL Championship Series. With his skill throwing that sinker, opposing hitters batted only .071 against him when they beat the ball into the ground.
There seemed to be no overt reason for the sudden injury, although Webb was struck with a line drive while on the mound late during the 2008 season and he may have adjusted his motion that September to compensate.
"If you look back to his delivery, there wasn't a reason. He pitched a lot, but he was a low pitch-count guy," said Price, although in Webb's 198 starts, 193 times he threw between 76 and 100 pitches and 106 times he went above the century mark. "It's one of those things that we'll be left to guess about. Everybody has a certain amount of pitches or innings in their arm. It's hard to say, but when you have the kind of injury he had, it wasn't inoperable, but it was a very, very difficult recovery."
Even after his D-backs days were over, Webb gave it one more try, signing a $3 million deal with the Rangers for 2010. But he made four starts in the Texas League and then shut it down for good.
"I was taking Toradol shots to get through my starts," Webb said, referring to the pain-killing drug. "On the last one, that didn't help, so I figured something was up again. It wasn't going to work, so let's move on. Let's spend time with the family."
Still, Webb refused to completely give up the ghost. Two offseasons ago, Price said he and Webb went out together to a Phoenix park and tossed the ball around all winter.
"We'd get close to where he was going to get on the mound and he'd just regress again every time he got to that point in his rehab," Price said. "He just couldn't get over that hump. I think that gave him some finality, an understanding that he was done. It made it slightly more comfortable for him to retire at that time."
This summer, Webb will work his assigned broadcasts and go home to Ashland, Ky., for the month of July. He'll comment on the struggles he sees on the field and ponder at times what might have been.
"The thing I remember about Webby is that he gave everything he had, all of his heart, all of his soul," said D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, who was the team's bench coach back then. "He should be proud of that and I know his teammates appreciated that. It's something you like to see in somebody. He was hurting for sure, and in the end, he could never get it back. You hate to see that happen."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.