It's fair to say that this year's trip to spring training didn't exactly go as I envisioned it might. Any day with baseball is better than a day without it, sure, but spending six days bouncing from new ballpark to new ballpark bred constant first-day-of-school anxiety.
Even parking is something of a test. The typical media lot is marked with a tiny cardboard placard that reads "media" or something more ambiguous like, "authorized personnel only." At worst, you have to stop and ask for directions four times before you find the correct lot. At Royals and Rangers games, media members park at a nearby swimming pool, which is owned by the city of Surprise. You're still not sure it's the correct lot, but figure that if the rental car gets towed that's Enterprise's problem. Once parked, the hunt to find someone who knows where your credential is being held begins.
At one stadium, credential in hand, I entered the press box, only to find that much as an airline would do, the teams had given out too many credentials and so every seat was taken. Knowing that I didn't have the status to bump Ken Rosenthal, my options were to work on a counter in the back that didn't face the field or try to find a seat in the stands. Some days there were seats, but the clubhouse was the problem. I had interviewed players before, so there was no trepidation from that standpoint, but around 70 percent of the time, I arrived to find that the clubhouses were closed for various reasons (team meetings, split squads, general apathy), even though I had been told that they would be open. The lowest point of the trip? Having a notebook full of questions to ask a particular player (who I won't name), only to be told that he didn't want to talk because it was taco night. I'm used to rejection, but being dumped for slow-roasted pork was a new one.
At a Giants/Indians split squad game, where I had hoped to talk to Michael Bourn and Terry Francona, I was told that the clubhouse wouldn't be open at all because none of the Indians' media traveled for the game. I pushed to talk to Bourn, but after he left the game in the first inning with an injury, that possibility was no longer on the table. The best the media relations team could offer me was Aaron Harang, a 35-year-old pitcher who signed on a minor-league deal during the winter and was then fighting for a spot in the Indians' rotation.
It wasn't glamorous, but at least it was something.
I waited in the hallway for Harang, jotted down a couple of questions in my notebook to ask a guy who seemed to have a 50-50 chance at best of beating out Carlos Carrasco, a 27-year-old entering the season with a career 5.29 ERA. Making the Indians' rotation didn't seem like that great of a story either, though, so I decided to focus on his perception of older pitchers finding their second wind and bringing value to staffs that didn't have much depth or experience.
At the time, that described the Indians (who eventually decided to go with Carrasco), but that also turned out to be the case for the Braves, who signed Harang to a one-year, $1 million deal not because they had been waiting to snatch him up, but because they were suddenly short pitchers after losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, Mike Minor to shoulder tendinitis, and Freddy Garcia -- to that point seemingly their choice for the "Voice of Experience" spot -- purposely, to the unemployment line.
After four starts, Atlanta's decision to sign Harang looks like genius. Harang has been one of the best pitchers in the majors so far this year, with a 0.70 ERA in 25.2 innings pitched, has taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning twice this season, and might have gone the distance on Friday night against the Mets had his pitch count (121) not forced manager Fredi Gonzalez to take him out of the game. All of his outings have been quality starts. While some of his success has undoubtedly been fueled by good luck on balls in play -- his BABIP is .150 for the year, versus a career average of .307 -- even if you grant him some regression, the Braves might have found a serviceable stopgap until Minor and Gavin Floyd are ready to return.
If you ask Harang himself, though, he'd probably suggest that at least some of his success isn't a fluke. In our conversation in March he was confident he could succeed in the majors again. All he needed was the opportunity:
It has been three incredible weeks for Harang thus far. While it would be nice to think a pitcher can suddenly be reborn an ace, it seems more likely that BABIP will adjust for Harang and he'll settle somewhere between this season's brilliance and last season's disaster. The best-case scenario is that Harang continues to pitch well into May, thus making decisions about the rotation more difficult when Floyd returns from his Tommy John recovery -- an envious position of strength for a team that, just before the start of the season, didn't have enough rotational depth to start the season.
Maybe it will all be short lived, but for now it's nice to have a pitcher who was nearly chased out of the game by poor command and low demand have his moment in the spotlight; at the very least, it's a reminder that sometimes things don't go as we envision they might, but that's not inevitably a bad thing.