* Kyle Drabek had help on his comeback from his first and second Tommy John surgeries, and now one of his friends from six years ago in the Phillies' system, Mike Zaguski, is his teammate at triple-A Buffalo. .... 2014 Canadians drafted … Canadians in Minors … Canadians in college summer ball …. Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
BUFFALO, NY – Six years ago, current Buffalo Bisons relievers Kyle Drabek and Mike Zagurski became friends as they sat on the sidelines rehabbing together in Clearwater, Florida as members of the Philadelphia Phillies organization -- the former attempting to come back from his first Tommy John surgery, and the latter nursing a hamstring injury.
When Drabek joined the Toronto Blue Jays organization, he credited Zagurski for helping him get through the rehabilitation process, and for assisting his maturation as a young ballplayer, an attribute often called into question early in the right-hander’s career.
“As much as I probably did for him, he did a lot for me too,” Zagurski said. “When you’re rehabbing and you’re with three or four people for 12 months, there are not many other people there so you either get to like them or else it’s going to be a long 12 months, and we hit it off pretty good. We played video games and watched movies, went to the pool and did our rehab.
“I probably helped him a little bit with maybe being a little more punctual and putting a little more focus on things that need to be focused on and little things like that. Kyle got a bad [reputation] at some point prior to the draft or whatever, which was a little bit unfair to him coming out of the draft or when he first signed.
“I don’t think he was nearly as bad as people were saying and I know he wasn’t, getting to know him now. He helped me as much as I’ve helped him.”
During their injury recovery, Drabek and Zagurski were roommates in the sunshine state, spending a lot of time together on and off the field. Both pitchers also spent a significant amount of time with Canadian hurler and current Yomiuri Giants closer Scott Mathieson, and credit him for leading the way during that stint.
“We lived together for the rehab and ... we had Mathieson and he helped me out too withTommy John surgery because he was [rehabbing] his second one at the time,” Drabek said. “Just having those two guys helped out so much – being able to learn from people who had been in the majors, the growing-up process, and being able to help me not try to overdo everything.”
With a lot of extra time and not much to do, Mathieson enjoyed having Drabek and Zagurski with him during his rehabilitation and even got some assistance around his Florida home because of it.
“Both those guys are great guys and we all helped each other out,” Mathieson said. “Rehabbing is hard work but it’s also very lonely. So it was great to have a good group of guys to go through it together. We would often have barbeques together after rehab or go to a hockey game or dinner. Kyle helped me build a deck around a koi pond at my house ... I still talk to Z every other week or so.”
The lone Canadian among the bunch, Mathieson’s passion for hockey even rubbed off a little bit.
“He was going through his second elbow surgery and you’re there and you spend a lot of time with the same guys so you find a way to get [along],” Zagurski said. “Scott likes hockey so we started watching hockey. Now hockey is something I enjoy, whereas eight years ago I wanted nothing to do with it. Now I follow it and prepare for it.
“You get to know what other people like and what they enjoy and it’s something to do, so you go and do it. We went to Tampa Bay Lightning games a fair bit and things like that to pass the time.”
Two months into the current season, Zagurski was released by the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays were one of multiple suitors who came calling immediately thereafter. So, the left-hander reached out to his old friend as he weighed his choices.
“I got a text from [Zagurski] a little bit before he got to choose what team he wanted to go to or whatever he was doing,” Drabek said. “I was pretty much telling him, he didn’t even have to ask, about how this team is, and trying to get him here. I was happy when he chose to come here and it kind of feels like old times.”
The 31-year-old southpaw says Drabek’s insistence convinced him to join the Blue Jays and accept his assignment to Triple-A Buffalo.
“He had a say in it, that’s for sure,” Zagurski said. “He knew my choices and it was more of a generalization – how are the guys there, how’s the team, how do you like the organization; things like that. He and I are maybe at different spots in our careers and I’m looking for the best chance I can to hopefully get back to the big leagues...
“He gave a good report and a good review of the guys and the staff and stuff, and at the time it seemed like the right fit.”
So after 20 appearances with the Buffalo Bisons, is it still the right fit?
“Yeah,” Zagurski said. “I mean, it’s a difficult spot to be in at times. I kind of compare it to catching falling knives; hoping you catch the right one. But so far so good, the team has been great, the staff has been good, and hopefully I’ll just keep plugging along and maybe get an opportunity at some point before the year is over.”
The Omaha, Neb. native is doing everything he can to get back to the big leagues, helping a Bisons relief corps with his 2.61 ERA over 31 innings of work. He’s walked 15, struck out 44 and held opponents to a .171 average since joining the squad.
“They brought me in to hopefully help them win some games here,” Zagurski said. “If there’s a need up top, maybe I can help there. I don’t think there’s anything specific that I was brought in to do. It was more of [they] think I can help them win some games maybe, let’s see where it takes us, and we’ll go from there.”
Rumour around the locker room is that Zagurski has also been a welcome addition to the clubhouse and bullpen, making an already-enjoyable environment even better.
“I don’t think I do anything different than I normally do,” Zagurski said. “It gets to be a long season and I’ve been on several teams in the last few years and it’s one of the things I am, I’m always the same wherever I go.
“Good day or bad day generally – certainly I’m going to be a little more irritated at times – but I’m going to bring a good effort and a good attitude. Those are pretty much the only two things you can control.”
But has Zagurski always had that sense of control, and “generally” positive mindset?
“Maybe not always,” he said. “But the last handful of years, yes. As I’ve gotten a little bit older I’ve realized you can be pitching really well and not get called up, and you can be pitching really bad and get called up. It’s out of your hands, but you can always control your effort and your attitude. Those are two things I’ve taken with me.
“The minor-league season has its moments where it’s pretty long, you’re taking 10-hour bus trips and seeing the same guys over and over again, you’re sharing rooms with guys and spending more time with people. It gets to be a little bit trying. The one thing I do is embrace it. I chose to be here, so it’s nobody’s fault but my own.”
*** Rehabbing his second Tommy John surgery last season, Drabek didn’t have Zagurski or Mathieson around with him in Florida this time. But he did have some company once again.
Having them all around the same time, we were able to feed off each other and just learn different things. If someone had a little pain somewhere we could go ask or they would ask us, what did you do or have you felt this? Having someone else around you is a lot of help.”
Slightly different during the rehabilitation process, the injury also came with a significantly different feeling the second time around than it did at the time of Drabek’s first.
“The first time I didn’t really feel anything – it just hurt to throw a fastball,” he said. “Other pitches, nothing. And the second one, I could feel it big time. It felt like my elbow was [hit by a] shotgun. It popped out of the socket and came back in and everything was burning.
Talking to other people who had it after my first one, that’s what they felt. So when I felt that, I pretty much knew.” Drabek’s former teammate reassured the 26-year-old righty that it wasn’t the end of the world, or his career.
“At the time, Jason Frasor was there and he actually calmed me down and talked to me a little bit,” Drabek said. “At that point he had his second one 10 years before and he said, ‘I feel great now.’”
But that didn’t really help the feeling Drabek had knowing that he was going under the knife again, that he would be out for a lengthy amount of time once more, and that he couldn’t predict how far it might take him.
“It’s a pretty big downer,” Drabek said. “You know you’re missing another year-plus of playing, and for me having it for the second time, there are only so many ligaments they can throw in there. So that kind of hit me. But it drove me to just try to make sure I did the rehab the right way.”
Back on the mound without health issues this season, Drabek was relegated to the Bisons bullpen after 13 starts. In 10 relief appearances he’s posted a 2.37 ERA over 19 innings with 13 strikeouts, but he says there are still adjustments to be made.
“It’s been a little tough,” Drabek said. “I guess I would call myself a bullpen guy now just because of the feeling I have getting up and throwing and sitting down and throwing. The guys here in the bullpen have helped me out a bunch with pitch counts before going on the mound, [and] just to pick two pitches that you think you’re going to use the most and get those out of the way and then start throwing your other pitches.
“I’ve been doing that and I think it’s helped my arm stay stronger once I actually get into the game. My first few times I threw what I would throw before a start and then I would get out there and I’m just gassed.”
The hurler has changed his workout and treatment schedules, the most significant differences in terms of preparedness he said, and he’s learning every day from his bullpen mates.
“I’m really watching other guys,” Drabek said. “I probably get 10 or 15 pitches in and then I shut it down until I find out if I’m going to go in or not. Now we’re getting to the point where I’m up in the middle of an inning and I could actually go in with guys on base, because I haven’t had one of those yet. I don’t know how that is. But I’m really watching the other guys and learning.”
So, what has he learned?
“Really just how I approach being able to come in in the seventh,” Drabek said. “And learning about scores and how to attack guys quicker. “As a starter you could go seven innings and you have time to mess around a little bit in there. Then out of the bullpen it seems like you have to be ready to go, strikes only, attack hitters. That was one of the big things I had to learn, instead of just flipping things all around, attack.”
Though he would prefer to start games again at some point during his career, Drabek is enjoying his time in the bullpen, “talking and watching the game,” and feels as though his attitude is much improved over where it might have been previously.
“Mechanics, I feel like I’m changing them constantly and that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Drabek said. “You want to have one that you can repeat. But I’ve been finding my mechanics have been getting smoother and my attitude on the mound and off the mound has gotten better.
“I’ve always been, not necessarily an angry pitcher, but I would get mad when things wouldn’t go my way. It doesn’t fly up in the big leagues. That was one of the things I had to learn throughout my career is to be able to hone that and use it in the right way.”
Both former Phillies pitchers are trying to work their way up to Toronto before this season is over, and are happy to attest to the old adage that it’s hard to make it to the big leagues, but harder to stay there.
“I’m living proof,” Zagurski said. “I’ve been up maybe parts of six seasons and a month here and there, never as long as I want to, but I’ve never had sustained success up there. So that’s very true, it’s very difficult to get there and it’s even more difficult to stay.
“Every year, there are 50 new guys on every team coming in, plus new guys pushing you and maybe something clicks at some point. You’re seeing some older guys starting to stay now that maybe they weren’t years ago. Maybe that will happen for me or maybe it won’t. Who knows?”
Zagurski has just over three years of major league service time, with parts of five seasons and just over 75 innings pitched in the bigs. He’s had pieces of nine seasons in minor league baseball, logging over 400 innings there.
Drabek has 37 big-league pitching appearances under his belt with 30 starts. He’s logged just under 170 innings at the highest level over four seasons, with well over 600 innings in the minors over parts of eight seasons.
“For me, that’s right on,” Drabek said of how hard it is to make it to the bigs, but harder to stay. “If you get your opportunity, you’ve got to run with it.
“Marcus Stroman this year, he had his opportunity out of the ‘pen, which would be hard for someone who’s been starting, but then he gets back up there to start and he took complete advantage of it. And watching Aaron Sanchez, his first game looked a 100 times better than he did here. He looked a lot calmer, and that definitely wasn’t the case for me.”
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis