— SURPRISE, Ariz. — Colby Lewis thought his major league career was over. But he found new control on the mound — and new life to his career — overseas.
When he left for Japan in 2008, he didn’t think he was coming back. And he was OK with that. He was at peace with the idea of finishing his career across the Pacific Ocean, learning a new culture, his wife and son coming along for the ride. He was grateful that a team — any team — was willing to pay him to throw a baseball, so he signed a two-year contract with the Hiroshima Carp. All in all, it seemed like a perfectly acceptable way to wrap up a career that had seen more than its share of highs and lows.
“I just kind of went over there with open eyes,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t looking to say ‘I can pitch in the big leagues,’ and be prideful. Here is a team that wants to pay me a lot of money to play, so I was all for it.”
Lewis learned from a young age to take the problems that baseball can throw at you in stride. He was a promising young pitcher in high school, but having to undergo Tommy John surgery at age 16 caused him to keep his goals modest.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and I knew my parents couldn’t afford for me to go to college,” Lewis said. “So that’s all I wanted out of it, to be able to put myself through college, get an education and figure out what I wanted to do in life.”
Perhaps too naïve to understand the severity of his injury, Lewis fought back to not only regain his form within a couple years, but become better than ever. He landed at Bakersfield (Calif.) College, where he dazzled scouts with a blazing fastball, becoming a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1999.
His rise through the minor leagues was rapid, and he reached the majors in 2002 after just three years of seasoning. It was amazing to Lewis that success came so quickly, and although his arm was impressive, his lack of control was cause for concern. In his first season in the bigs, he averaged nearly seven walks per nine innings, a stunningly poor number. The next season wasn’t much better, as he walked 70 batters in just 127 innings (five per nine innings), compiling an ugly ERA of 7.30 in 26 starts. All the heat in the world doesn’t matter if the batter doesn’t have to swing at it.
Lewis said it might have been a matter of too much, too soon, saying he was promoted “just because I threw hard. I mean, I put up decent numbers, but not eye-popping numbers. I definitely had the arm to be in the big leagues, I don’t know if I was mentally ready.”
Things got worse in 2004, as his season was derailed early by a rotator cuff injury that required surgery. After sitting out 2005, Lewis became a nomad over the next two seasons, getting only 28 appearances, and a single start, with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s. The Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals also gave him shots, but not long enough for him to pitch in any games.
Finally, Japan came calling, and something clicked in Lewis. He thrived playing in an environment in which he got to stay with one team all season and didn't have to worry about bouncing between the majors and minors. Travel was easy — the longest trip was four hours by bullet train, and his family was allowed to travel with him. His newfound comfort level showed itself on the mound, as he cut his walk rate dramatically.
“I kind of just told myself to pound the strike zone, to go after guys and make them put the ball in play more and earn it,” Lewis said. “I just kind of went with the mentality of making them earn it. When that happens, you just throw more strikes and get more outs.”
His success was noticed, and after two seasons with Hiroshima in which he went 26-17 with a 2.82 ERA and a walk rate of 1.2 per nine innings, multiple major-league teams called with offers of a return to the bigs.
The Rangers, with their familiarity — and offer of a two-year contract — made the most sense, and suddenly the former first-round draft pick, having found his control at age 30, was playing a prominent role on a team that reached the World Series.
During the Series, in which the Giants beat the Rangers 4 games to 1, Lewis earned the only victory for Texas, in Game 3.
“I think what happened is he’s not as overpowering as he was as a young man,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “As a young man he used to just stand out there and try to throw the baseball as hard as he could. I guess his years in Japan have taught him how to pitch a little bit, and when he needs to get something he can get something. He’s got good command. He can spot his fastball, he can throw his secondary stuff anytime in the count, and he competes.
“I hope he stays the same. … Just continue to pound the strike zone and keep the ball in play like he does. Don’t walk many people and he’ll be fine, because we’ve got guys out there who can catch the ball."