By Rich Rhoades
His beard growing longer by the day, Kersey native and St. Marys Area High School graduate Joe Beimel is enjoying quite a comeback story in the great Northwest.
While Not quite in Los Angeles Dodgers Brian Wilson’s beard class, Beimel is gaining ground for sure.
“I actually started growing it the day after Halloween,” Beimel said in an e-mail interview late last week. “I was Wolverine for Halloween and had the Wolverine beard. I shaved it off the next day and started this one.”
One website has Beimel’s beard ranked No. 12 in MLB.
But clearly, his return to the Major Leagues is a bigger deal. After missing two full seasons in the Major Leagues due to Tommy John surgery, the 37-year-old left-hander is back at it in the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen. Going into the All-Star break, Beimel is 2-1 with a 1.50 earned run average in 32 appearances covering 30 innings.
Just about every statistic is lower than his career average. Ever the optimist, Beimel never doubted he’d be back after learning of his elbow problems in spring training of 2012, the year after he was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011. He sported a bulky 5.33 ERA in 35 games.
“I had zero doubts,” Beimel said. “I have never been one to doubt myself because I know what I am capable of. It’s never easy. If it was, everybody would do it. I just worked hard through the rehab process, kept a positive attitude and had confidence that I would be back better than ever. I plan on pitching until I’m 50 so Tommy John Surgery was just a small bump in the road.”
Beimel did sign a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves last year and spent the whole season at Class AAA Gwinnett. He was 1-2 with a 4.36 ERA in 30 games covering 33 innings.
“The only thing that made it tough was the ups and downs of the first year back from Tommy John Surgery,” Beimel said. “I just didn’t consistently feel good every day. I would have one day where I would feel amazing and then the next day my arm would feel terrible. Everyone told me that was how the first year back is but you don’t really know until you experience it.
“Once I got around the 16-month mark after surgery, I started to feel back to normal. It was probably a blessing that I didn’t get called up because I was able to stay in AAA and work through all of the kinks and then had that extra month of rest before this season to allow me to get stronger.”
He signed a one-year deal with the Mariners in the offseason, made the roster in spring training and became a key lefty specialist out of manager Lloyd McClendon’s bullpen. He’s allowed 26 hits, only eight extra-base hits, all but one of them doubles, while walking 11 to go with 17 strikeouts. Left-handed batters are hitting just .146 against him.
Until Sunday, Beimel hadn’t allowed a run since April, a span of 21 appearances. He yielded his first homer of the season to Oakland’s Nick Punto.
Beimel’s primary pitches — sinker and fastball — continue to be his bread and butter. He’s averaging 87.7 mph on his fastballs, so it’s all about location. Even post-surgery, Beimel’s approach continues to be the same.
“The biggest improvement is just being healthy,” Beimel said. “I’m able to pitch and concentrate on getting guys out rather than focusing on how my arm feels. My approach is still the same. Keep the ball down and work ahead.”
He’s a part of one of the best pitching staffs in the league and that’s why the Mariners are in the hunt for the postseason, playing in the rugged American League West Division. Their team ERA is second in MLB and bullpen ERA tops.
“It always feels great when you’re pitching in the Big Leagues, but it is way more fun when you are a part of a team that is winning,” Beimel said. “This is definitely the best bullpen I have ever been a part of and it has been fun to watch each and every guy go out and get the job done.”
Many experts believe that the Mariners have a good shot at making the postseason, even though they’re in third place in the AL West behind Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels. At the break, they’re eight games behind the A’s, but own a 2 1/2 game lead in the race for the second wild card spot.
“We think we are pretty good,” Beimel said. “We are playing in the best division in baseball and feel like we can win every night. Our pitching is going to carry us and come October I expect us to be battling for a World Series Championship.”
McClendon and Beimel were together in Pittsburgh when Beimel broke into the majors in 2001. McClendon was Beimel’s first manager in the Bigs from his debut through 2003.
“Lloyd being here was a huge factor for me signing with Seattle,” Beimel said. “I knew he would give me every opportunity to make the team out spring training as long as I stayed healthy. He gave me an opportunity as a young player and I’m thankful for the one he gave me as an older player.”
It’s debatable on whether the Mariners’ success or Beimel’s comeback is more of a surprise. Either way, Beimel is enjoying the scenery. In his 16th season as a pro (not counting missing 2012 with his injury), Beimel’s next appearance will be the 600th major league game of his career.
“I feel like I’ve been ‘surprising’ people since I was drafted in 1998,” Beimel said. “It never gets old.”
NOTE: Article originally appeared in Sunday’s Tri-County Sunday