A year ago, Aaron Harang went to spring training with the San Diego Padres with a guaranteed spot in the starting rotation and a new $4 million contract. There was nothing in any of that to suggest his career was some sort of reclamation project, but it most definitely was, which is why Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley started looking at old video long before Harang even reported to camp.
Old video of Harang. From his days with the Cincinnati Reds. When he was a No. 1 starter. When he was winning 53 games over a four-year stretch.
When he had no idea what awaited him in the years to come -- a slew of injuries to a slew of different body parts plus an appendectomy.
What Balsley found was a delivery that bore no resemblance to the one Harang was now using.
"The mechanics from 2006 and 2007 were completely different from the mechanics from 2009 and 2010,'' said Harang, the veteran right-hander who signed a two-year, $12 million free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers this winter. "Everything was different. My arm slot. The length of my stride. Over time, you start battling injuries and maybe changing things just a little bit to try to compensate for any discomfort. Pretty soon, you have changed your whole delivery without even realizing it.''
Once he identified his old mechanics and went back to them, they felt totally natural almost immediately -- "It's kind of like riding a bike,'' Harang said -- and the results came almost as quickly. After going 18-38 over those three injury-plagued seasons with the Reds, including tying for the major league lead with 17 losses in 2008, Harang went 14-7 with a 3.64 ERA for the Padres last year. He likely would have won more games if he hadn't spent a month on the disabled list with a bruised right foot.
By all indications, he was back. And for a Dodgers team that was losing Hiroki Kuroda to free agency, that made him worth the risk.
Now 33, Harang said the past few years took a toll on him not only physically but also mentally. This is a guy who was accustomed to being a staff ace, something he essentially was from the time the Reds acquired him as the key player in a 2003 trading-deadline deal with the Oakland A's, along with a couple of forgettable prospects, for Jose Guillen.
Harang would anchor the Reds rotation for years to come while the organization waited for promising minor leaguers like Edinson Volquez to be ready.
And then, suddenly, the injuries started coming and the success just sort of stopped.
"It's just a tough thing for your pride,'' Harang said. "There are days when you get up and start thinking, 'Do I really want to go to the ballpark today?' When you're hurt, it's tough. We're all competitors, and we want to be on the field and be a part of everything.''
Even as the injuries continued to mount, though, Harang says he never considered quitting the game. His reward for fighting through all those rehabilitation days was that last season, he got to play in his hometown of San Diego, where he once starred at Patrick Henry High School and San Diego State University. He might have had a second year there -- he had a $5 million mutual option -- but with the Padres front office in transition after last season and an Oct. 31 deadline for exercising the option, the club decided not to do so.
So Harang landed here, with the Dodgers, which he considered the next best thing.
"It's still close to home,'' he said. "Seeing how this team started off last year and how they finished, how they kept fighting and kept playing hard, that showed me this could be a good place for me. I'm looking forward to it. I think we have a good shot to be right in it at the end of the year.''
And that really is all Harang, who hasn't been to the postseason since his rookie season of 2002 with the A's and didn't pitch in the playoffs that year, is looking for. That, and a continuation of the career renaissance he experienced last year, thanks to a simple look at some old video by his new pitching coach.
Harang now says all that adversity gave him a greater appreciation for success.
"It does,'' he said. "Obviously, this game is a humbling game, but you have to keep going out there and fight your way through it. You're going to have your ups and down, but you try not to let the downs last too long. At the same time, you don't want to let your success go to your head. You have to keep a level head in this game.''