Surprise, Ariz. Mike MacDougal's sophomore slump hit hard -- and early.
Now, the Kansas City Royals reliever hopes to return to the form that made him an All-Star as a rookie, when he converted his first 10 save opportunities and had 24 at the break.
"I feel as long as I'm healthy, I'll be able to pitch the way I need to pitch," MacDougal said. "I'm healthy, so I feel confident going into spring training."
Since his early season surge in 2003, MacDougal has only four saves -- and only one in 2004, when he spent much of the season battling health problems.
He opened the season on the disabled list because of a stomach virus and a sore shoulder, and a tender elbow sidelined him in the middle of the season after he was sent to the minors.
"I was trying to protect my shoulder, and my elbow started hurting in the middle of the year," MacDougal said. "That's what I had a hard time getting over. I kept throwing, thinking I was going to throw through it. I always thought it was going to go away."
An MRI exam of the elbow detected tendinitis, and MacDougal took a month off to rest it.
The only save last year for MacDougal, a first-round pick in 1999, came April 28 in his first game after coming off the disabled list. He struggled after that, though, and was sent to the minors May 11 having compiled a 10.80 earned-run average.
MacDougal did not pitch well for Triple-A Omaha and July 22 was sent down to Double-A Wichita. His arm started coming around in August, and he went 1-0 with one save and a 1.47 ERA in 17 games with the Wranglers. The Royals called MacDougal up in September, and he had a 3.38 ERA in his final eight games.
"My arm strength was not there until at the end of the season, so I kept throwing as I didn't want to lose that," MacDougal said.
MacDougal's velocity peaked at 100 miles per hour in 2003, but with his injuries last year it dropped into the low 90s.
While left-hander Jeremy Affeldt has been anointed the closer to start spring training, MacDougal hopes to regain that role.
"I got a taste of it in 2003 and liked it," MacDougal said. "That's what I'm here for. There's a lot of young guys competing for spots, so it brings out the best in people."