PITTSBURGH - In the past couple seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their general manager, Neal Huntington, have done a remarkable job of targeting struggling veteran pitchers off the apparent scrap heap and watching them resurrect their careers.
Lefthander Francisco Liriano was the feel-good story in 2013, leading the staff with 16 victories after enduring career oblivion as a member of the Chicago White Sox.
The San Diego Padres gave up on righthander Edinson Volquez last offseason, and he currently leads all Pirates' starting pitchers with 10 wins this year.
Perhaps nobody has made a more eye-opening comeback, however, than Vance Worley.
The Minnesota Twins had Worley, 26, pegged for the bullpen this past spring after the bespectacled righty and California native struggled to a 1-5 record and 7.21 earned run average in 10 starts in 2013.
"Mechanically, I wasn't right,'' Worley said of last season's struggles. "(The Twins) felt that it was the right decision for me to go to the (bull)pen.''
He was there for only one day when the Pirates acquired him this past March 25 for cash considerations in a move that, so far, has turned out to be a real steal for the Bucs.
Since returning to his familiar starting role with the Pirates, Worley has posted a 5-2 record with a 2.51 average entering tonight's starting assignment against the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park. A craftsman on the mound, Worley has added veteran stability to a Pirates' rotation that has been rounding into solid form since mid-June, when he tossed seven shutout innings against the Miami Marlins in his Pirates' debut.
"I'm just grateful to have a chance here,'' Worley said recently at PNC Park. "(The Pirates) called, they traded for me, they had me in extended (spring training) for a month, then I went to (Class AAA) Indianapolis and continued to grind and make these guys see that I'm not a guy who belongs in AAA.''
Or in the bullpen, either.
"It feels good to get back into the swing of being a starter,'' said Worley, who pitched a four-hit, complete-game, 4-0 shutout at San Francisco's AT&T Park on July 28 against a Giants team that he had grown up following in his hometown of Sacramento. "I've been a starter my whole career, and that's what I'm comfortable with.''
Worley - who was picked in the third round of Major League Baseball's amateur draft by the Philadelphia Phillies back in 2008, and posted an 11-3 record for the Phillies in 2011 - is a technician on the mound. He has a decent fast ball, but his forte is mixing the speed of his pitches effectively, and blowing up opposing bats.
Ground balls and weak outs are the rule rather than the exception against Worley, who has walked just 11 batters in his first 68 innings of work with the Pirates this year, while striking out 61.
"His stuff isn't overpowering, but I think that he throws (pitches) to really good locations, and everything moves,'' Pirates backup catcher Chris Stewart said of Worley. "He avoids a lot of barrels on bats, and gets a lot of guys to miss-hit balls.''
Worley, who wears goggles when he's out on the mound, approaches each outing as he would a chess match. Against San Francisco, he said he threw predominantly fast balls. During a recent appearance against San Diego at PNC Park, he felt that off-speed deliveries would better suit him, and he handcuffed the Padres on five hits over seven innings, allowing just one earned run in a 2-1 Pirates' victory.
"I just read the hitters,'' Worley said. "There are some teams that I might throw more fast balls to, and others that I'll throw more off-speed stuff to. I threw more off-speed against San Diego because their approach was geared more toward fast balls.''
After last season's troubles, Worley approached this year with a new type of hunger. He's happy to be on a Pirates' team that is just as hungry after making the playoffs for the first time in over two decades last fall.
"These guys got a taste of getting into the playoffs last year, and they know what they want this year,'' Worley said. "It's exciting to be a part of this team, and I think I know what I need to do in order to be able to contribute here.''