CLEARWATER, Fla. - Before the Phillies officially opened their self-proclaimed rebuilding season on a wind-chilled Thursday morning at the Carpenter Complex, one of the young, promising pitchers they hope is part of a better tomorrow declared that he has been rejuvenated.
"Something is testing me and I'm going to answer the bell," Jesse Biddle said. "I'm right here and I'm ready to keep going."
That's good news for the Phillies because the list of things that tested their 2010 first-round draft pick last season was long and surreal, leaving some to wonder if his career was going to crash and burn before he even reached the big leagues in his hometown. The weirdest part of his story received a lot of attention, but Biddle, a Germantown Friends school graduate, never talked publicly at length about the Reading hailstorm that sent him into a mental fog.
"It was really a pretty horrible thing that happened," he said. "I got caught in the middle of a storm and my car basically caved in. The back windshield exploded and the front windshield was about to explode and I had glass all over my arms. There were glass shards everywhere, so I ran out of the car to go get coverage and while I was running I got blasted in the back of the head and was bleeding."
That happened May 22. Google "Reading hailstorm" and a homemade YouTube video will give you an idea of just how large the icy projectile was that fell from the sky and landed on Biddle's head.
"After that, I didn't really feel right and I was very confused," Biddle said. "I had a concussion when I was younger, but I didn't really remember what it felt like."
Biddle did not make his next scheduled start for double-A Reading, but after going through an Impact concussion test, it was determined that he was ready to pitch again 11 days later. It turned out, he was not.
"I tried to pitch through it and work through it, but when I was on the mound I just didn't feel connected," he said. "I didn't feel connected to the mound. I didn't feel connected with myself. Just everything felt out of balance."
The before-and-after numbers give a good indication of how much the concussion impacted Biddle. In his first 10 starts last season, he was 3-4 with a 3.18 ERA. He had allowed 48 hits, walked 24, and struck out 61 batters in 562/3 innings.
Even those numbers were skewed because Biddle did not pitch well in his first two starts of the season after being told the Phillies wanted him to return to Reading for a second season. He admitted that bothered him, but after coming to terms with it, he went 3-3 with a 2.33 ERA in his eight starts before the hailstorm.
Biddle had things he needed to work on. He was not throwing enough strikes and the Phillies had concerns about his fielding and his throws to first base. All of those things became exacerbated after the hailstorm. He returned to the mound May 31 and in his next five starts he was 0-5 with a 9.82 ERA. He walked 15 and struck out just 16 in 22 innings.
Bottom for Biddle was a 10-run, three-inning outing at Binghamton on June 23. Four days later, the Phillies decided the young lefthander needed a mental break. They placed him on the inactive list and sent him to Clearwater.
"When I went down to Florida to get looked at I couldn't even walk in a straight line," Biddle said. "I didn't realize how hazy I was until I snapped out of it. Seeing the [concussion] specialist and getting evaluated made a big difference. They just said you're not ready. With everything I was describing to them and with a couple of the special exams they gave me, they didn't think I was ready."
For a full month, Biddle rested his mind and worked on his body. He never had a face-to-face conversation with Roy Halladay, but he did talk to the former Phillies ace on the phone about the challenges a pitcher can encounter in an effort to reach the big leagues.
"He was incredibly helpful," Biddle said. "The guy has been through everything and then some and I learned a lot from him. I really did. I took a lot of things he said to heart."
When Biddle's head finally allowed him to return to the mound, he pitched two innings with the Phillies' Gulf Coast League team on July 26. Eleven days later, he threw five no-hit innings for single-A Clearwater. After another start at Clearwater, Biddle returned to Reading Aug. 16 to face the same Binghamton squad that had knocked him around in his previous start with the Fightin Phils. He suffered a strained muscle warming up in the bullpen and still tried to pitch. His season, however, ended after 32/3 innings.
Determined to get him the innings he missed while recovering from the concussion, the Phillies sent Biddle to the instructional league in Clearwater and then to pitch for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican winter league. The last act of a nightmarish season came when he was shut down with elbow tendinitis after just two starts in Puerto Rico. An MRI exam revealed no structural damage and Biddle arrived for his second big-league spring training with a sound mind and body.
He'll most likely end up back at Reading when the season opens, but he is no longer worried about that.
"I was in a bad place, but I'm not there anymore," he said. "I'm really not. Contrary to what people believe, I'm actually very, very happy with where I'm at and I'm just excited for this season."
In Baseball America's annual preseason rankings, Biddle was the Phillies' No. 2 prospect after the 2011 season. He was No. 1 after 2012, and No. 2 after 2013, and 71st in all of baseball.
Going into the 2014 season, Biddle is no longer ranked.
However, a rejuvenated Biddle is something for the Phillies to be excited about as they begin this rebuilding season.