SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona's Stephen Drew is the soft-spoken type and more a garden-variety good player than an eye-popping "tools" guy, so it's easy to overlook him in a discussion of the game's best shortstops. But the numbers help state his case; since his first full season with the Diamondbacks in 2007, Drew ranks sixth among shortstops in slugging percentage (at .436) behind Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, J.J. Hardy and Jimmy Rollins.
Now he's part of another select fraternity. Thanks to a freakish bout with fate last summer, Drew joined Joe Theismann, Carson Palmer, Rajon Rondo and other athletes whose misfortune has been preserved by a gruesome sports injury video clip.
In the fourth inning of an Arizona-Milwaukee game at Chase Field on July 20, Drew was racing to beat a relay throw to the plate when he suffered a horrific injury on a slide. Hearts sank. Eyes were averted, and it was clear that Drew was in for a long, hard road of rehab after his right ankle bent in a way that the human anatomy was never meant to endure. When he had to be helped off the field, his teammates knew it was serious.
"Stephen is a tough kid, and if he limped off field I would have said, 'Yeah, he'll be back,'" said Diamondbacks infielder Willie Bloomquist. "But with the way he was carried off and the pain he was in, I knew it was something pretty nasty."
How nasty was it? San Francisco catcher Buster Posey suffered a broken bone in his left leg and three torn ankle ligaments in a collision with Florida outfielder Scott Cousins in May. The encounter generated national headlines, hard feelings and a raging debate over whether new rules should be enacted to protect catchers from being plowed over at the plate. Posey had no problems watching the video, but he wanted no part of the Drew replay.
"It made my stomach turn watching him," Posey said recently.
Drew has watched replays of both injuries and sees them for what they are: isolated incidents of the hazards that can ensue when major leaguers play the game full-bore and give no thought to the repercussions. Someday, when the Diamondbacks are playing the Giants, he expects to take a few moments to commiserate and reflect with Posey.
"I know what he's going through and he knows what I'm going through," Drew said. "It would be neat to catch up with him and talk about it. We'll have different perspectives as guys with major injuries who've seen what it takes to come back."
Posey's hiatus from the field has nearly reached an end, and he was expected to make his Cactus League debut Friday against Cincinnati. Drew, meanwhile, is still feeling his way along and trying to learn how much stress his ankle can withstand. Until recently, he was hitting in the cage and fielding groundballs for two straight days, then taking a day off for treatment. Now he's graduated to a three-days-on, one-day-off plan. The Diamondbacks are content to let him go at his pace.
The challenge comes with striking the right balance between listening to the competitive voice within and exercising restraint and a long-term perspective. It's one thing to have an encouraging day at the yard. But baseball at the highest level is a debilitating slog from March through September or October, and shortstops probably have a wider array of sprints, cuts, plants and abrupt movements in their job description than anyone else on the field.
"He had a serious injury," Diamondbacks bench coach Alan Trammell said of Drew. "At some point he'll have to start playing games. Whenever that is, I don't know. But it's the bounce-back. How many days in a row can he play? Is it going to swell up? Is it going to get really sore? Nobody can answer that, and he can't either."
When the Diamondbacks selected Drew out of Florida State with the 15th overall pick in the 2004 draft, some scouts naturally compared him to his older brother J.D. and wondered if he had the same "low motor." But Stephen has a knack for staying on the field that J.D. lacked. During the four-year span from 2007 through 2010, the younger Drew appeared in 150, 152, 135 and 151 games.
Trammell, a favorite of both baseball purists and the statistical crowd for his achievements in Detroit, describes Drew in a way that's typically used to describe Alan Trammell. Drew doesn't have exceptional power, but he does have a 20-homer season on his résumé. He's no burner, but he did steal 10 bases two years ago. And as a defender, he's known more for his reliability than his range or inherent "wow" factor.
"I like the all-around game," said Trammell. "He's not awesome at one particular thing. But when you add up the total package, he's a very good, fundamentally sound baseball player who does a lot of things well."
Through high school, college, the minor leagues and the majors, Drew survived takeout slides and near-collisions with outfielders without any significant damage. But his career nearly unraveled on a rudimentary play that had become second nature. He was racing to beat a throw home from Milwaukee third baseman Casey McGehee when his toe hit a small rut in front of the plate. As Drew tried to avoid the tag from Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, his right cleat got caught in the ground and his momentum left him powerless to avoid a catastrophe.
In the slow-motion replay, Drew's ankle turns at a grotesque, 180-degree angle, and he instinctively reaches down and twists it back into place as manager Kirk Gibson and the training staff rush onto the field. His ankle reportedly popped three inches out of its socket.
The official diagnosis: a spiral fracture of the right fibula that required a plate to repair, and torn ligaments in the ankle.
"I've thought about it since then," Drew said. "I've slid maybe a thousand times since I began playing this game when I was 4. Maybe I'll slide a million times by the time I'm through playing. This was just one of those unfortunate things that happened. I didn't choose this path, but it comes down to what you do with the path you have."
In the offseason, Drew's path took him to Brett Fischer's physical therapy and conditioning center in Phoenix, where he doggedly chased incremental goals and personal milestones. Drew experienced a big one in December when he was finally cleared for baseball activity.
Could Drew return to the lineup by April? That seems optimistic, considering there's no timetable for him to appear in spring training games. The Diamondbacks have been resistant to casually throwing out target dates for that first, momentous step.
As Drew continues with his rehab, the Diamondbacks will take the scrappy overachiever route at shortstop. Bloomquist gives the team a lot of energy, and backup John McDonald is a groundball magnet at the position. They don't compare to Drew offensively. But Arizona ranked fourth in the NL with 731 runs scored last year despite losing Drew for half the season, and the rotation of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Trevor Cahill, Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter is good enough to compensate when the bats are lagging.
When Drew does return, it will bring a tangible boost to the lineup and an emotional lift to the clubhouse. His teammates can appreciate how hard he's worked to reach this point.
"The average person doesn't know what you have to go through to come back and be able to play at the highest level of baseball with an injury like that," Bloomquist said. "You have to go through a lot of hours in the training room and a lot of hours rehabbing. It's not fun by any stretch of the imagination."
The evidence is right there on YouTube for everyone to see. Someday soon, in an idle moment around the batting cage or the second base bag, Stephen Drew and Buster Posey will have time to stop and reflect on their experiences from a much better place.