- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Giants starter Jason Schmidt changed his routine and spent part of his offseason at the Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz. He played catch in the mornings with Boston's Curt Schilling, took a crash course in nutrition and hit the weights diligently enough to add 20 pounds, while simultaneously shedding body fat.
Schmidt even switched agents, leaving the SFX group for Michael Moye and Scott Sanderson, whose firm stresses a strong Christian philosophy that's more in line with his faith.
It's the type of extreme makeover an athlete does when he's driven to succeed. In Schmidt's case, it was also a way to leave behind a season that taxed his body, mind and soul.
Schmidt, 33, has been one of Major League Baseball's most reliable starting pitchers in recent years. Since 2003, he ranks third in the game in strikeouts (624), fifth in wins (47) and 10th in ERA (3.24). His .712 winning percentage in that span is second best in the majors behind Minnesota's Johan Santana.
But last year was a struggle from the outset. Schmidt's fastball, which typically reaches the mid-90s, was clocked at 88 mph in spring training and never got appreciably better. As he tried to adapt to his waning velocity, he groped in vain for answers.
Schmidt maintains to this day that his shoulder was never hurt. Was it a case of what baseball people call a "dead arm," or a byproduct of wear-and-tear following elbow surgery and a 225-inning season in 2004?
The ultimate indignity came midway through the season, when Schmidt began hearing rumblings in the San Francisco clubhouse that there was a different reason for his decline. Word got back to him that a teammate or two had speculated that his stuff was slipping because he had stopped taking steroids.
Ballplayers are no different than reporters, fans or scouts; they'll sit in the dugout, see a player with less muscle mass or lower radar gun readings and engage in speculation about who is juicing and who's not.
Schmidt, the forthright sort, admits that occasionally he would sit in the dugout and wonder which players were artificially enhanced. The irony is that he was now a victim of the same baseball parlor game.
"If someone saw me in the shower, they'd never think I was on the juice," Schmidt said.
His experience last year gave him a feel for the scrutiny that teammate Barry Bonds endures -- albeit on a much smaller scale. Although Schmidt refuses to elaborate on the source of the steroid speculation, he was clearly stung by it.
"You don't want to hear stuff like that in your own clubhouse," Schmidt said. "It makes you realize that people don't really know you. That's what made me mad. I felt like, 'These people should know what I stand for and what I'm about -- that I wouldn't do something like that.'
"When you talk about steroids, you're not talking about a guy's physical talents and what he brings to the game. You're talking about what makes him up as a person. The thing that surprised me is that it did irritate me. When it comes from in-house, that really gets to you. I wish people would say, 'You know what, Schmidtty would never do that."
The Giants know that a healthy, productive Schmidt will go a long way toward vaulting them from 75 wins back into contention in a winnable National League West. San Francisco's starting rotation posted a 45-61 record last season with a 4.52 ERA, 12th best in the league. The Giants also ranked 12th in the NL with 940 innings by starters; only the San Diego, Colorado, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati rotations logged lighter workloads.
Given the Giants' traditional emphasis on pitching and their home field advantage at spacious AT&T Park, it's understandable when general manager Brian Sabean says that poor pitching contributed to the team's demise every bit as much as Bonds' absence from the lineup. The Giants ranked 22nd in the majors with 76 quality starts, and the ineffectiveness of the rotation prompted manager Felipe Alou to overuse his bullpen.
"When the rotation doesn't give you innings, it's tough on the manager and tough on the players," Sabean said. "Most playoff teams have consistent staffs, and it begins with the starters."
Today's San Francisco rotation has a much different look than the one that broke camp in April 2005. Schmidt and Noah Lowry are still around, but Kirk Rueter, Brett Tomko and Jerome Williams have been replaced by Matt Morris, Matt Cain and either Brad Hennessey, Jamey Wright or Kevin Correia.
If Schmidt can approximate his form of two years ago, when he went 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting, he gives the Giants an ace who can match up with Pedro Martinez, Chris Carpenter, Roy Oswalt or anyone else the competition has to offer.
In hindsight, Schmidt concedes that he might have contributed to his problems last year with his own stubbornness. When his fastball lost its zip, the natural inclination was to try and throw even harder. That's the way power pitchers are built.
As the season progressed, Schmidt eventually showed he could adapt. He became more proficient at hitting his spots, and the results showed. He went 6-5 with a 5.01 ERA before the All-Star break, and 6-2, 3.66 after it.
Schmidt logged time at Mark Verstegen's API facility in Tempe over the winter with the objective of leaving nothing to chance. His morning get-togethers with Schilling were both educational and therapeutic.
"It was nice to pick his brain a little bit," Schmidt said. "He's a guy I've always learned things from here and there. It was interesting to hear his throwing program and his philosophy on getting ready for the season. I said, 'I'll try something different this year and see what happens.' "
Schmidt's first outing of the spring was promising enough. He threw three shutout innings against the Cubs. But more important than the results was that he had some life on the ball and mixed in some hellacious changeups ahead of schedule.
"When he's on, his command is the biggest thing," Cain said. "His fastball is where he wants it to be, and his changeup is unbelievable."
It remains to be seen how much time Schmidt has left in the Bay Area. He's eligible for free agency in November, and he's noncommittal about re-signing with the Giants. Schmidt grew up in Washington and lives there in the winter, and he ultimately might feel a sentimental tug to return home and pitch for the Seattle Mariners.
At the moment, Schmidt's 2005 travails serve as both a motivational tool and a cautionary tale. He has learned that knee-jerk assumptions are dangerous, and that labels, when applied casually, can hurt more than a man's pride.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm perfect," Schmidt said. "I'll sit on the bench and say, 'That guy is a lot skinnier this year. He's not hitting 20 home runs.' But I learned my lesson. I'm not the guy doing that anymore.
"Once the finger was pointed at me, I stepped back and realized I was wrong. Maybe God allowed that to happen to me for a reason, to teach me a lesson. When it's in-house and you know somebody, it's a different story."
Giants ace Jason Schmidt hopes to find a way to leave behind a season that taxed his body, mind and soul, writes Jerry Crasnick.