The final time Chris Bootcheck pitched at Fifth Third Field last season, he suffered an injury that might have ended his career.
So while his return to Toledo on Wednesday wasn’t pretty — he gave up eight hits and eight runs in just three innings — it was quite an achievement.
Last season Bootcheck served as the Hens’ closer and was 2-5 with 17 saves and a 4.06 ERA. But he dived to try and catch a bunt on Aug. 5 and injured his left, or nonthrowing, shoulder.
“It's amazing how quick you can lose the range of motion," Bootcheck said. “There was a burning sensation while I was going through the stretching, and it was simple stuff.
“It seemed as if [the rehab] took forever."
The injury cost Bootcheck a chance to play winter ball, which is an important opportunity for six-year free agents to showcase their abilities to earn contracts for the coming season.
“As a year-to-year guy, you're always playing for next year," he admitted. “That's the life of a free agent. You accept that, and you have to use that to drive you through the year.
“Ending the year on an injury is never a good thing, but it had a greater effect [on getting a job this year] than I thought it would."
When the phone didn't ring, Bootcheck started to prepare for life after baseball.
Now living in Atlanta, he sent out emails to colleges near his home. Within 30 minutes of sending the emails he heard from coach Brad Strohdahl at Georgia Gwinnett College. He visited the campus the next day and started working with the pitchers at the NAIA school as it prepared for its first season of competition this spring.
“I still wanted to be in baseball in some capacity," he said. “I've done lessons and I've done camps, and I feel I've worked under a lot of good people.
“The ability to give that back to a lot of guys was something that I was excited about. Coaching really started to fill that void [caused by] not playing that I thought wasn't going to be filled."
But Bootcheck still wanted to pitch, and late in the offseason he got a minor-league offer from the Yankees. What made the New York offer unique was that it included a chance to start.
“Guys usually make the move to the bullpen when teams don't want them to be starters any more," he said. “To be asked to be a starter again is a challenge. ...
“But when you throw well, it's that much more gratifying."
Bootcheck has thrown well outside of Wednesday’s start. He led the International League with a 1.25 ERA in six starts before Wednesday; in that span he gave up 24 hits, 10 walks, and just five runs in 36 innings while striking out 27.
“He has good fastball movement that allows him to get outs," Scranton/Wilkes-Barre pitching coach Scott Aldred said. “He's added a changeup that has helped him a little bit.
"Plus, he's really competitive. And he's a pro; he can work his way through a lineup pretty well. He's done a nice job for us."
Bootcheck has an opt-out clause in his Yankees contract, but said he will see what opportunities exist before exercising it.
“When you are playing well, you put yourself in a position to get into a good spot," he said. “Whether it's getting called up or being traded, I think good things come out of playing well."
PARRISH HONORED: The Mud Hens will honor former manager Larry Parrish with a bobblehead giveaway on July 9.
Parrish, the winningest manager in Toledo baseball history, was selected for induction into the International League’s Hall of Fame this year.
Now the manager of the Tigers’ Lo-A West Michigan team, Parrish will be honored on the same day 2,000 fans will receive bobbleheads with Parrish’s likeness.
GETTING BETTER: Entering Saturday, the Mud Hens had a 7-9 record for the month of May.
Those seven victories tied the number of wins the team collected in 27 games in April.