SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The smile on Octavio Dotel's face said as much as any words. "I feel like I did in Houston, man," the Royals right-hander said. "I'm feeling unbelievable. That wasn't much, what, 11 pitches? But I never had that kind of velocity this early before. Not in Houston, not in Oakland or New York. I never threw this hard, 94-95 [miles per hour] this early." Dotel had just completed his second stint of the spring, a perfect inning against Seattle on Thursday, during which he retired Jeff Clement, Jose Lopez and Jeremy Reed in order on 11 pitches -- including eight strikes. He got Reed with a moving fastball that registered 96 mph on the radar gun above the left-field fence.
Of course, airing it out this early in the preseason is probably not the best idea for any pitcher, especially one who can see the scars from Tommy John surgery on his right arm. But Dotel has never been just any pitcher, and he is going on two years since the operation, so his impatience is understandable. In his mind, Dotel can see the end of his two years in limbo as well as the starting point to the second leg of his career. He sincerely believes he is back and is eager to prove it to the rest of the baseball world. "I didn't work on everything I wanted to, because it was just one inning. But I did work on my fastball; I let it go," he said, smiling, as he knocked on the wood of his clubhouse stall. "Everything feels good. I know everybody is saying, 'After the surgery, how's Dotel gonna be?' One of the things I really feel good [about] is the fact that I'm feeling great throwing my fastball, my slider and sinker. I don't feel anything I'm worried about. I feel like I did three years ago, praise God." During the 2004 season, Dotel saved a combined 36 games and won six more for Houston and Oakland. He was 1-2 with seven saves in 11 opportunities in 2005 with the A's when his season was shut down for elbow reconstruction surgery. Dotel came back last year with the Yankees but clearly wasn't ready, posting a 10.80 ERA with 11 walks and 12 earned runs allowed in 14 games. The Royals, desperately needing a closer after squandering a Major league-high 31 save opportunities, decided to take a chance on Dotel this offseason after their best medical and scouting opinions convinced general manager Dayton Moore that he was healthy enough to pitch and still had the stuff to get the job done.
Dotel has only pitched two innings this spring, but Royals manager Buddy Bell likes what he's seen so far."You blink, you miss him, because he works fast," Bell said. "He's looked good. He's throwing well and hasn't had any issues." In his prime, Dotel was arguably the best right-handed setup man in the National League. He was a power pitcher who could routinely hit 97 on the gun with a moving fastball that helped him rack up 405 strikeouts in 327 1/3 innings during the 2000-02 seasons. In the five-year period covering the 2001-05 seasons, opposing hitters compiled a .187 batting average against him. Now, after eight years, 395 games and more than 10,000 pitches, others may wonder if Dotel will ever approach that level of excellence again. As for Dotel, he has no doubts. "Last year, maybe, but not now," he said. "I know what I can do. I know how I feel." He waited for his chance to become a closer and got it when the Astros traded Billy Wagner to Philadelphia. Dotel then went to Oakland midway through the 2004 season in the three-team deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Astros and catcher John Buck and third baseman Mark Teahen to the Royals. This spring, the Dotel who is trying to resurrect his career with the Royals seems a more mature, focused individual than he was before the surgery. "The way I'm looking at it, I expect to [be back]," Dotel said. "Sometimes you expect something and it doesn't go the way you want it, and you don't handle it right. But now, because I have more experience and I know how to handle the pressure when it's on me, it's different. "Before, I was a little bit [tense] when things happened. No more. Right now, [the elbow] feels the way I want it to feel. If it stays like that, it's going to be really nice. It's going to be a fun season." Seems hard to believe Dotel, at 33, could really be as good as he was in his heyday. Dotel believes he will be better, and not just because he's had the necessary time off and rehab since the surgery. "I never threw this hard three years ago, because I've never worked this way to get back," he said. "This is harder than I've ever worked. I know it is, and I think it's why I see my velocity over the normal. I have my stuff, and it feels great. I usually don't get my stuff until April 28th, 29th, 30th, somewhere around there. This year, it's early." Dotel, with 71 saves in 99 career opportunities, can't wait to get the opportunity to save a few more for the Royals.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.