Backe for another shot this season

February 17, 2008 12:35:56 PM PST
Brandon Backe has a hard time taking it easy. He was constantly told to hold back on physical therapy as he tried rehabilitate his right elbow following ligament replacement surgery in 2006. The doctors and trainers finally won out, but Backe still returned sooner than expected and made five starts last September, winning his last three.

The games were insignificant -- the Astros were far out of the playoff picture by then -- but every inning, every pitch was proof that the 29-year-old Backe was healthy, a critical need for the Astros this year.

"That was a tremendous help, just to know I can do it again, to know I still have enough to compete at this level," Backe said. "To be honest, I wasn't as close to 100 percent as I will be this year. I feel like the elbow is better now than it was then."

Backe arrived at spring training with a guaranteed place in Houston's starting rotation, somewhere from No. 2 and No. 4 behind Roy Oswalt. Manager Cecil Cooper, hired the week before Backe made his return, is reassured about what Backe can offer by what he saw from him in September.

"If he was coming in here and hadn't pitched at all, I would've had to bring him along really slow, maybe would've had to really baby him," Cooper said. "And that could've affected people surrounding him. Now, it doesn't. Now, he's one of the regular guys taking his regular turn. We'll monitor him, sure, but I expect him to be a big part of the rotation all year."

Backe went 10-8 in 2005 and pitched seven scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series. He hurt his elbow in his second start of 2006 and sat out until July. He made five starts after that, but the elbow never stopped throbbing and he agreed to surgery and the 12 to 18 months of recovery time that goes with it.

He sought advice from several pitchers who've undergone similar procedures or suffered elbow problems. All of them successfully returned, putting Backe's mind at ease.

"That's what helped me get through the rehab process mentally," he said. "Going through the rehab without any information, the mind-set just trying to get back, I wouldn't have been prepared for the setbacks, the days of soreness I had. Being able to be told what was going to happen was huge."

Once he could throw again, his arm varied daily from feeling fine to burning with pain. Doctors and trainers told him to be patient, against his competitive nature. Backe reluctantly followed their directions.

"Now that I've done it, I've kind of stepped back and seen that could be the better way, when times in the past, I might try to press harder," he said. "I've learned to say to myself that not giving the max effort all the time doesn't mean I don't care. It just means I'm learning how my body reacts and recovers."

Still, he was racing against the schedule, trying to pitch before the season ended. He gave up eight hits and three walks in his first outing, a 5-3 loss to Milwaukee on Sept. 4.

He lasted six innings in each of his last three starts, striking out at least two in each. On Sept. 29, he allowed one run on four hits with four strikeouts in a 3-2 win over Atlanta. He also homered.

"I mean, I could've said, 'Well, I'll just relax, take it easy and not get into a game and we'll start the process next year,"' he said. "I didn't want to take that approach. There would've always been doubts going into this season. Those doubts have been erased."

Backe was cautious in the offseason, delaying the start of his usual regimen by two weeks. He didn't start throwing again until early January.

"I'm really excited about the way he's thrown so far," Astros pitching coach Dewey Robinson said. "He's got his confidence back, and that's big for us. He was a big-time pitcher for us, won some big games for the Astros."

Backe has just one goal this season -- stay healthy.

"Obviously, I've never been through this before and I'm hoping I'm done with it," he said. "I'm confident the surgery has done its job, and I have no reason to think I can't be as good as I was before."

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