Brandon Webb’s quiet brilliance

Start after start, Webb put his head down and went to work.

Start after start, Webb put his head down and went to work.

I was on the couch, home early from work, when Brandon Webb took the mound in Chase Field against the Rockies on Opening Day 2009. There had been reports out of Spring Training that he was feeling some discomfort and would be pitching at less than 100 percent, but that hardly seemed concerning. For a pitcher who wasn’t yet 30 and had been the picture of consistency for three seasons running, it was assumed (by me, at least) that he would be fine in the long run.

Four innings later, he was out of the game, having given up six runs and two home runs. And, with yesterday’s announcement that he would be retiring from baseball, that was the last the baseball world saw of Brandon Webb.

I lived in Arizona from 2007 to 2009, and one of the first baseball items to cross my path was Webb’s bobblehead, depicting him in the Diamondbacks’ then-new red uniforms and holding his 2006 Cy Young Award. Baseball was the one aspect of the state that most made me feel at home, and having a bona fide ace pitching for the home team put me at ease.

It didn’t hurt that Webb pitched such a beautiful game, night in and night out. Seemingly unconcerned with strikeouts and the kind of macho posturing that’s so common for so many gun-slinging aces, Webb was quiet, hardly changed facial expressions and threw a sinkerball so devastating as to keep shortstop Stephen Drew and second baseman Orlando Hudson on high alert at all times.

One start that particularly stands out was in 2008 against San Diego. In the middle innings, he took a line drive off the chest, leading to the medical staff and manager Bob Melvin to come rushing in from the dugout. And from the look of Webb from my seat in the grandstand and the view on the centerfield scoreboard, he almost seemed annoyed at the attention. He wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible. He pitched through the seventh that day for a 4-1 win.

Webb was ruthlessly efficient, working rapidly and getting back into the dugout quickly enough that Eric Byrnes’ sprints to left field started to feel like a relay. His 42 consecutive scoreless innings in the summer of 2007 stand as one of his more notable achievements, along with that Cy Young and the two second-place finishes that followed in 2007 and 2008.

Despite those accolades, it felt as though he was underappreciated by the community in whole, lapped by his flashier cohorts in the National League West, Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum. But it didn’t matter; during his 2006-08 peak, he averaged 19 wins, a 3.13 ERA and 233 innings pitched per season. He took the ball, kept his team in the game and quietly went back to the dugout. He pitched every day until he couldn’t.

When Webb vanished, again, there didn’t seem to be the uproar or the fascination that greeted Ben Sheets on his comeback attempts, or even Scott Kazmir now. Even for me, Webb began to fade to memory shortly after he hit the disabled list after that fated opener in 2009; I moved back to New England that summer, Webb tried to latch on with the Texas Rangers, and there he toiled between minor league fields and operating rooms.

The news of Webb’s retirement hit me as something of a stunner, and not because I couldn’t believe that he was packing it in, but rather because I had all but forgotten about him. All that was left was a t-shirt in a closet and a bobblehead doll in a drawer.

That came with a fair amount of guilt. Like the average fan, I had put Webb to the back of my mind and, eventually, out of it. He deserved better than that. What he got instead was an impressive career that saw him pitch in the playoffs, lead a surprise team to a division title in 2007 and take home the highest honor for a pitcher. Hopefully, from here on out, he’ll finally be remembered for the player he was.

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