Andrew Albers wasn’t close to throwing away his lifetime dream after the San Diego Padres released him at 2010 spring training or when the Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee and Colorado followed suit a year later.
The thought of never throwing a pitch for a major league team came in 2009 after the Canadian hurler had Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
"It got to the point where I didn’t even care if I could ever throw again," Albers said in a recent interview. "I just wanted to move my arm so I could go about daily life and do things with my left arm that I could do before [the surgery]."
Albers struggled physically and mentally for the first four-and-a-half months of his expected 12-to-18-month recovery, sweating it out in the training room trying to get his elbow to extend. Many times he would work for 20 minutes to extend it and once he could bend the elbow, Albers would lose the extension and saw little progress after repeated attempts.
"For me, that was probably the most trying time," said the native of North Battleford, Sask. "I was fortunate enough to be able to go in for a second surgery and [doctors] cleaned up some scar tissue. From there, I was able to get the majority of my range of motion back and was even able to throw again."
Drafted by San Diego in the 10th round of the 2008 amateur draft, the 27-year-old Albers auditioned for the Minnesota Twins two years ago, driving his 2004 maroon Buick LeSabre 32 hours from Phoenix to Fort Myers, Fla., and signed on March 10, 2011.
That season, Albers appeared in 22 games (two starts) in the Florida State League for Fort Myers, posting a 1.55 earned-run average for the Twins’ Class-A Advanced affiliate. He later earned a promotion to double-A New Britain of the Eastern League, going 4-1 with a 2.91 ERA in 13 games (five starts).
Albers went 4-3 with a 3.75 ERA in 17 starts with New Britain last season and opened the 2013 campaign at triple-A Rochester, where he fashioned an 11-5 mark, 2.86 ERA and led the International League in complete games (three) and strikeouts (116 in 132 1/3 innings pitched) at the time of his major league promotion on Aug. 3.
The six-foot-one, 195-pound southpaw hasn’t disappointed at the major league level either. On Wednesday, Albers limited Kansas City to two earned runs over seven strong innings in a 8-1 loss, throwing 72 of his 99 pitches for strikes and inducing 11 ground balls. The 2-2 Albers hasn’t won in three starts but boasts a 2.92 ERA for the 57-74 Twins.
Albers also talked to CBCSports.ca about the ups and downs of his major league pursuit, facing 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and why he works quickly and from the stretch as a starting pitcher.
1. Describe the learning experiences of being released by four major league teams in a calendar year and then working your way back playing independent ball with the Quebec Capitales?
Albers: Sometimes you wonder if this is what you’re meant to be doing. You learn that faith gets you through a lot of things. For me, [it was] having faith in God and believing that there’s a plan for me and he’s going to put me where he wants me to be. I’ve had my ups and downs just like a lot of guys that make it to this level. When things are stacked against you is when it’s time to find out what you’re made of, dig deep and see what kind of person you are.
I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself along the way and it’s helped me get to where I’m at today. It’s been a neat journey over the last three, four years and now that it’s culminated in making it [to the majors] I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
2. You held Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera hitless in three at-bats with a strikeout on Aug. 22. What is it like to face a player who is threatening to become the first player in major league history to win back-to-back Triple Crowns as the leader in batting average, home runs and RBIs in the American League?
He’s one of the best in the business, if not the best in the business right now [with a .357 average, 43 home runs, 130 RBIs). But you can’t let that get in your head because you’re going to feel the pressure, tense up and that’s how you make mistakes. Fortunately the first time he came up there was nobody on base so I was able to be aggressive with him and got strike one. It was all about being aggressive and getting ahead in the count. The more he sees you, the better chance he has of hitting something solid. He put a pretty good swing on the ball that at-bat but he found a glove.
Second time up was a bigger situation but I made some good pitches to him that he fouled off. In the end, he swung through [a pitch] and missed it and I was able to get him. It was all about being aggressive and getting ahead in the count. The more he sees you, the better chance he has of hitting something solid.
3. You’ve already set a few Twins records, including eight-plus shutout innings in your major league debut and 17 1/3 shutout innings to start your MLB career. What has been your "Wow" moment through five starts?
Really, it was just getting up here [to the major leagues]. You come out and realize it’s the same game. You’re playing with a little bit better players and against little bit better players. The complete-game shutout was pretty special. Getting to finish [the game] in your home debut in front of the hometown fans is pretty special and that’s something I’ll never forget. That would have been my "wow" moment on the field.
4. There has been constant talk about the fact your pitches are not overpowering, even though several pitchers have carved out successful major league careers as soft-tossing hurlers, including Jamie Moyer and current Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle. How bothered are you that people continue to stress the speed of your pitches rather than your strengths?
It’s kind of where we’re at in the game today. But there’s more than one way to get a guy out. I would love to have 95 [miles per hour] in my back pocket but it’s not something I can do so I have to find different ways to the job done.
It [being a soft-tossing pitcher] doesn’t mean I can’t have success. Maybe I don’t have as much margin for error but there’s something [in my arsenal] that’s been working and I’ve been able to be successful with.
5. You work quickly on the mound and pitch from the stretch. When did you start this approach and what were the reasons?
It’s something that was taught in college. It was all about pace: get on the mound and throw and keep the defence in the game. Obviously for me, my defence is going to play a huge role because I’m not going to strike out twenty guys in a game. I need my defence to be involved and mentally [engaged].
Pitching from the stretch stems from college as well. I started [as] a freshman and junior in college and came out of the bullpen as a sophomore and senior. My senior year I came in during a lot of different situations and rarely in a fresh inning, so I was always pitching out of the stretch.
In my [second] year with the Twins, I wasn’t sure what the plans were for me so I didn’t bother working on a windup. I [eventually] gave it a shot and about a month into the season leadoff hitters were hitting about .400 off me so I figured this was kind of pointless and I might just as well go from the stretch.