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Rice Trio Finds Path To Pros Plagued With Injuries
By Brian McTaggart
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• Progress Report On All 30 Picks
• Huston Street Shows No Fear As Rookie Closer
• Bush Looks To Shed Premature "Bust" Label
HOUSTON--They will be forever joined at the hip, no matter where the rest of their professional careers take them.
Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend made up one of the best pitching rotations in college baseball history, leading Rice to a national championship in 2003 before becoming unprecedented top 10 draft picks a year later.
Although they're playing in different corners of the world and wearing different uniforms now, they remain close friends and still take time to talk to each other about life and baseball.
Lately, those discussions have focused more on how to deal with their various injury problems than reliving the glory days of their back-to-back College World Series appearances.
As gratifying and award-filled as their college careers were, Humber, Niemann and Townsend have gotten off to slow starts in the pro ranks, thanks in part to negotiation hassles and injuries.
Humber, the No. 3 overall pick of the Mets in 2004, signed a major league contract with a $3 million signing bonus in January 2005. But he had Tommy John surgery in July and hopes to return to the mound by midseason next year.
Niemann, the No. 4 overall pick of the Devil Rays, also didn't sign until January and got a $3.2 million signing bonus. He is in the rotation at Double-A Montgomery after missing about 2 1/2 months with a shoulder injury.
Townsend, the No. 8 overall pick of the Orioles in 2004, sat out all of last year in a contract dispute with the club and re-entered the 2005 draft. He was selected at No. 8 again, this time by the Devil Rays, and signed days later for $1.5 million, less than the $1.85 million the Orioles had offered.
Townsend strained his neck days after signing and was out for about a month. He's in the rotation for short-season Hudson Valley and was 0-3, 7.17 in 21 innings.
"I don't think we knew how to take care of our bodies for the long run," Townsend said. "Jeff said he came out of spring training in midseason form, and I think we both realize there's no reason for that right now. We need to ease into things and not push things. We're so used to always pushing, always grinding, it catches up to us a little bit."
Humber, who pitched a complete game in the decisive 2003 College World Series matchup against Stanford, had bone spurs in his elbow when he signed. He made 14 starts for high Class A St. Lucie and earned a promotion even though he went 2-6, 4.99, then was forced to leave his first start at Double-A Binghamton early because of elbow pain.
"The first part of the year it was hard trying to knock some of the rust off," Humber said. "I had a great spring, and I think I got into some bad habits. Right before I really got hurt, I had put together three or four good starts and I think that's why they moved me up to Double-A.
"I was starting to really feel good about the way I was throwing and then my arm started hurting. That was the most disappointing thing, knowing I got in my groove and started throwing better and then had this injury."
Dr. James Andrews repaired the ulnar collateral ligament in Humber's elbow July 19 in Birmingham. He won't throw a baseball until November and has been spending his time at his home in Carthage, Texas, where he goes through therapy three days a week.
"When everybody else is coming home, I'll be going back down there to the complex (in Florida) to do rehab, so they gave me a little break," Humber said. "It's pretty boring. I can't play golf. I can't really go hunting or fishing because of my arm. I'm trying to stay busy, visiting family and seeing friends and stuff like that. There's not a whole lot going on in Carthage, so I'll be down in Houston the next couple of weeks and find something to do."
The 6-foot-9 Niemann had a good spring and went to high Class A Visalia before hurting his shoulder in May. After rehabbing in St. Petersburg, Fla., he made his Double-A debut in August. In his second start in Montgomery, Niemann allowed one hit, one run and one walk and struck out four in three innings to lower his ERA to 3.38.
"It's been an up and down year, but things are going good right now," Niemann said. "When I was down in St. Pete, I was in extended spring and there were five or six guys down there. I wasn't on a team. It was bad. I'm just happy to be on a team again and get out there and compete, especially being at Double-A.
"They've got a whole lot of prospects out here, so it's a constant test to see where you are or where you fit in and see how you can do against other organization's best guys."
Still Racing To The Big Leagues
Townsend threw an inning in his pro debut June 24 and hurt his neck the next day. He has recovered and made seven starts, giving up six earned runs in three innings in his most recent outing for Hudson Valley.
"I basically had to start from scratch and get my arm in shape," he said. "I'm still not really used to this five-day thing. The first time I went out I hit 94 (mph) a couple of times, and lately I've been between 88 and 93, kind of like I always was. It doesn't feel like it did when you had the whole seven days to get ready."
Townsend and Niemann, who were roommates at Rice, are thrilled to be in the same organization and envision being in the same rotation in the big leagues one day.
"That was a huge deal," Townsend said. "Tampa is where I've been wanting to go for the last two years. They'll move you if you do well, and it's up to you to do well. Jeff and I expect ourselves to do well in the long run. We'd like to be part of the transition of turning Tampa Bay into an elite franchise."
Humber's main concern is simply getting healthy. He hopes to be throwing bullpens by spring training and is confident his elbow will be in game shape by the middle of next year.
Through it all, he's made it a point to keep up with his former college teammates. And it's in time like these when Humber is most grateful for their friendship.
"We had such a competition at Rice and all of us want to get to the big leagues fast, and it's nice to have guys rooting for you and guys you can kind of talk to about different things and know they understand," Humber said. "It's good to have those guys around."