READING - Now that he's riding high again, leading the Reading Phillies' staff, trim and mature and clear-eyed, Joe Savery can reflect with a calm wisdom.
This was the guy who, after being chosen 19th overall in the 2007 draft, said in his postdraft press conference that he looked forward to helping the big-league club . . . by 2008. His projected landing time in Philadelphia as a full-time starter: '09.
He was an All-America at Rice. He was a slugger, too, who played first base when he didn't pitch. He was confidence personified.
And then, by the end of the 2008 season at Class A Clearwater, with a 9-10 record, a 4.13 earned run average, a flabby body and a dead arm, Savery was a shaky 22-year-old wondering if he'd ever see a major league game from anywhere but the stands.
"That's come up several times," he says, softening his brashness in retrospect. "I think there's a distinction between having goals and, uh, saying how things are going to be. Those were goals of mine. Did I underestimate some things? Probably."
He underestimated how much juice he had in a repaired shoulder that got just 6 weeks of rest between surgery in the summer of 2006 and the end of the 2008 season. He underestimated how hard it would be to stay in good shape in a post-collegiate world where structure evaporates and a man makes his own choices.
He overestimated his ratio of bravado to ability and, finally, wondered if he was in the right line of work.
"At the end of last year, to be honest, I was throwing 84 to 86 mph," Savery said. "The way my arm felt - it's not that you think it's over, but in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'I've had a surgery. Maybe my arm's just not cut out for this. Maybe this is as good as it gets.' "
"We knew he was thinking that way," said Chuck LaMar, the Phillies' assistant general manager who runs the minor league system. "You try to never overreact to it. We stayed positive with him."
With almost $1.4 million invested in him, the Phillies moved him to Double A Reading. Even Savery was a little surprised.
"Because of where I was drafted, maybe I get the benefit of the doubt," Savery said.
The Phillies are getting the benefit of his talent.
Slimmer, smarter and more comfortable, Savery yesterday improved to 8-1, tied for the most wins in Double A. His earned run average is 3.47. His fastball is buzzing in from 87 to 91 mph, his slider is finding some bite, his changeup is an occasional weapon and his two-seam fastball, four starts into its insertion into his repertoire, is . . . a work in progress.
With this sort of success at Reading, and with the big club always itchy for pitching solutions, Savery should be on the major league radar. Right?
"No," said LaMar as he left yesterday's game in Reading. "He will not be moved up until we see more of a mastery of his pitches."
"I'm still a couple clicks away. I'm OK admitting that," Savery said. "My walks are high. We're trying to shrink that zone."
After walking 31 in his first 60 innings this season, Savery has walked three in his last two starts. Yesterday, he held Harrisburg to one hit and no runs in six innings.
"He looked good," said LaMar, who challenged Savery at spring training.
"Take every pitch seriously," LaMar said. "You can't get complacent at 2-0 and throw that righthanded hitter a 'Hit me!' fastball." Has Savery listened?
"Well, he's better at it, but he's not where he needs to be," LaMar said.
He's not where he thought he'd be, either. LaMar chuckles at the memory.
"It's just human nature for these players, especially first-round picks, to think they're a couple of steps from being in the big leagues," LaMar said. "And they're right. They just don't know how big those steps are."
Savery has taken several steps to refresh his career.
First, he stepped away from the game for 3 months. After his surgery, he had been rehabbing or pitching pretty much without a significant break for 2 years until September of last year.
He played golf with his buddies.
He began a running and weightlifting regimen that eliminated his waddle and regained for him some of the upper-body strength that he lost during shoulder rehab. He's close to 215 pounds packed onto a solid, 6-3 frame; he even lost 3 more pounds 2 weeks ago.
He figured out that, since the surgery, he can't work too hard between starts, so he cut his between-start mound sessions from two to one.
He came to grips with the fact that his support system was gone. Playing at Rice in Houston, 6 miles from his hometown of Bellaire, he had friends and family at every home game.
He realizes that if he does make it to the majors, he probably will be a contributor, not an ace.
"He's lefthanded, so there's a plus," said Reading pitching coach Steve Schrenk. "If he was righthanded, I definitely say he'd be a bullpen guy. He's lefthanded, so I see him starting. The way he's throwing right now, maybe a back-end guy."
When? If ever?
"It's a big year for him. He knows that," Schrenk said. "He sees what's ahead of him in Philly. There are guys that are older. Guys running out of contracts. I wouldn't say make or break - but he could show people he could pitch."
The slider, Schrenk said, is the key. If it keeps improving, Savery might see Triple A Lehigh Valley this year. And then . . .
"Hopefully he can help [the Phillies] out next year."
Just a little behind schedule - not that Savery is making any more projections.
"I've had to embrace the process," he said. "Last year I worried so much about getting out of A ball and getting to Double A, I didn't exist where I was. This year, I've accepted that I'm in Double A. I'm not going to try to pitch my way to Triple A or to the big leagues - not that I don't think about those things. But I can't let that consume my thoughts."
Or his quotes. *