PHILLIES RELIEVER Tom "Flash" Gordon rented the getaway car and told Ryan Madson to be in the lobby of the team's Arizona hotel at 9 sharp the next morning. He didn't need to add not to let anybody know what they were up to. That part was understood.
Their hush-hush destination: the Tempe Sports Clinic.
It was just over a year ago. May 2008. The Phillies were playing the Diamondbacks. Madson was coming off shoulder problems and struggling on the mound. And that's where the story of how the angular righthander abruptly added some 4 mph to his fastball begins.
"Kind of behind everybody's back - I can say it now - he took me to Keith Kocher in Arizona, the physiotherapy group there that he knows," Madson said the other day. "And the guy was awesome. I was there in dress clothes from the hotel, and he ran through a series of exercises right there."
By the end of the season, he was throwing harder than he'd ever thrown. His strong finish as a setup man earned him a 3-year, $12 million contract over the winter. And now, until Brad Lidge returns from a sprained right knee, it has put him in a position to be the Phillies' closer.
Madson sat out the last 2 months of 2007 with what he describes as a torn teres muscle near his armpit, an injury that sounds less benign than the officially listed "right shoulder sprain" that landed him on the disabled list.
He was fully recovered by the beginning of last season but wasn't having the kind of success he wanted. "What we were doing was good, but it wasn't getting me over the hump," he said.
Gordon had the same injury earlier in his career, was familiar with Kocher and insisted that Madson see him.
"It was a huge place. There were athletes everywhere. Major league baseball players everywhere," Madson recalled. "He dropped everything and said, 'Hey, this is what you need to do to get this taken care of, plus.' It took a while, because of the workload of throwing, to build it up. Finally, later in the year, it was healthy and strong. And I did notice a difference with my arm.
"I give Flash a lot of credit. He didn't have to do that. He rented a car. He said, 'We're going at 9 o'clock in the morning. Get up and you're coming with me.' I've got chills right now, just thinking about how he took care of me."
Madson pitched twice in that series against the Diamondbacks. When it was over, his earned run average was 5.40. His fastball was consistently 91-92, occasionally hitting 93, but he wasn't getting hitters out as consistently as he needed to.
As the season went on, though, he began to notice the results. By the end of the year he was comfortably 95-96 with an occasional 97 mph fastball thrown in. In his last 14 appearances of the season, he had a 0.63 ERA.
He's been able to maintain that velocity into this year, too. The eighth pitch he threw to Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay on Sunday was clocked at 97.
Phillies head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan, by the way, said he has no problem with Madson seeking an outside opinion and described the program he's on now as a "collaborative" effort.
Said Madson: "I don't know if it was all the shoulder exercises, but a lot of it was. It's probably about a 15-minute routine. Just some pulls. It all runs off a Keiser [fitness] machine. Some cuff weight stuff. A ball on the wall. Just weird stuff. I don't know what their names are. But I know what they are and I still do them today and I love it. It's unbelievable."
It's also likely that feeling strong and healthy boosted his confidence.
"I think he's gained enough confidence that he believes he can cut it loose now, he can let 'er fly, because he believes in his stuff now," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "With some guys, it just clicks at some point. That's how I would attribute it. And we're fortunate to have him throwing as hard as he is."
That process was fortified by having veteran relievers like Rudy Seanez and J.C. Romero constantly telling him how good he could be, a message that pitching coach Rich Dubee had begun preaching in the spring.
Amaro also believes the 2007 injury might have been a wake-up call. "I think what scared him a little bit was his injury," he said. "And I think he realized he's going to have to dedicate himself to preparing himself in a certain way all the time and I think that's what has happened to him."
Agreed Madson: "It's scary because the game goes on and the team goes on and they win without you. You ain't the key to success. They're going to keep going on and winning without you. So it's one of those things. 'Let me back in. Please.' Because it can be gone that quick."
In this era of baseball, of course, no pitcher is going to add that many miles per hour in his late-20s without raising suspicion that he has been helped by performance-enhancing substances.
Madson, who turns 29 in August, understands that. He began to smile even before the obligatory question was finished, and held out his pipe-cleaner-thin arm as a rebuttal. He's skinny, 6-6 and 200 pounds.
"I could never think that way," he said. "Early on I said, 'If I'm going to make it, I'm going to make it the right way. And I don't care what anybody else is doing.' It's one of those things where it's kind of refreshing. Fans can say, 'Hey, this guy's doing it and he's doing it the right way.' Who knows how many guys did or didn't? I don't know. Because I never paid attention. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I'm not going to risk my body.
"For that to be a question is just part of society right now. It's unfortunate that it did happen. A lot of things happened. But time heals everything and obviously fans still love the game."
Madson is working on a streak of 14 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings over his last 16 appearances. He's 2-for-2 in save opportunities since Lidge went on the DL last week.
Gordon, coincidentally, signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks last winter. He won't get a postseason share or a ring if the Phillies make it back to the World Series.