Difficult journey braces Parra for any obstacle

Difficult journey braces Parra for any obstacle

Difficult journey braces Parra for any obstacle
PHOENIX -- Brewers left-hander Manny Parra's MRI on Saturday revealed no clues about the source of the lingering stiffness in his back. That was a good thing, Parra said, but the bad thing is that he's dealing with yet another source of frustration in a career that's had its fair share.

This is a young man who has endured major shoulder surgery as a prospect, inconsistencies as a Major Leaguer and been bumped from the starting rotation in each of the past three seasons, including a day in 2009 that he was yanked from a start against the White Sox and optioned to Triple-A while the game was still being played.

"A lot of pitchers have been through this sort of thing," Parra said. "This is the top level of your profession, man, and it's not always a smooth road. You keep battling."

His latest battle is a balky back.

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Parra said he usually works through some discomfort early in the spring, so he was not alarmed last month when he developed stiffness in his mid-back. He hoped he was past the problem on Thursday, when he debuted against the A's at Maryvale Baseball Park, but he lasted only one batter plus one pitch before exiting the game.

"It will be fine," Parra predicted, but the Brewers opted to investigate. X-rays on Friday were negative, but a bone scan was inconclusive so the club scheduled the MRI. It showed no structural damage, so Parra will continue getting treatment until the stiffness subsides.

"I appreciate us getting all of that done so we know it's nothing serious," he said.

The Brewers have long been patient with Parra, beginning with the day they drafted him in the 26th round in 2001 as a "draft and follow" player. Parra signed a year later and quickly became a top pitching prospect, going 3-1 with a 3.26 ERA at two rookie affiliates in '03 and 11-2 with a 2.73 ERA at Class A Beloit in '04.

His first setback was rotator-cuff surgery in 2005, but Parra bounced back by '07 to throw a perfect game for Triple-A Nashville on June 25 in his second start above Double-A. He was the Brewers' Minor League pitcher of the year and earned a big league promotion, he thought, for good.

But Parra has had nothing near the same sustained success in the Majors. He was 10-8 with a 4.39 ERA for the Brewers in 2008 but was bumped to the bullpen in September while the team was pushing for the National League Wild Card berth. Parra was already struggling in '09 when he was knocked out of a start against the White Sox in the second inning, and he was informed during the fifth inning by general manager Doug Melvin that he was being sent back to the Minors. Melvin said he made the move in-game as a courtesy to Parra, who would have been grilled afterward about his hold on his roster spot.

Parra returned to Milwaukee three weeks later but finished the season 11-11 with a 6.36 ERA, the highest ERA of any NL pitcher who worked at least 120 innings. He started last season in the bullpen, moved to the rotation but was bumped again after going 2-7 with a 6.19 ERA in 16 starts.

Left-hander Chris Narveson understands Parra's ups and downs. He was St. Louis' second-round Draft pick in 2000 but had Tommy John elbow surgery in '02, missed most of '07 with a shoulder injury and, besides a brief stint with the Cardinals in '06, did not make it to the Majors until '09, when he took Parra's place on the roster after that tough start against the White Sox.

Narveson can particularly relate to Parra's current predicament, because he made a series of starts last summer with a tight back that he worried would never release.

Then, one day, it did.

"I wouldn't say it's just me and Manny -- everybody in the rotation at some point struggles or needs somebody to talk to," Narveson said. "Me and 'Wolfie' [Randy Wolf] talked last year, me and 'Yo' [Yovani Gallardo]. Sometimes you need to hear different things from your teammates."

As Narveson speaks, Parra sits at a table in the clubhouse and shares a laugh with veteran reliever Takashi Saito. At other moments this week, though, Parra has sat quietly at his locker.

Narveson and others have picked their moments to offer encouragement.

"Any time you come into spring and deal with [injuries], even small stuff, it's a pain in the butt," Narveson said. "You're ready to go, you have expectations, you want to get going, and sometimes your body won't let you go."

Sometimes, it's easier to deal with setbacks in the bullpen, Narveson said, because for six or seven innings every day you have a support group sitting around talking baseball.

Parra has started 74 of his 110 career outings in the Major Leagues, but the Brewers are planning to use him exclusively in relief this season. He had success there last year, posting a 2.93 ERA in 26 appearances.

"It's a big difference," Parra said. "The throwing programs are totally different. A lot of relievers, and quick and short and more often. Me, I like to do things like long toss, and that's something I'm not going to change."

Parra said he's happy to work out of the bullpen if that's what the team needs.

"It's a different mentality, and last year I think I did a good job out of the 'pen," he said. "Whatever I can do to help this staff, I'll do. Personally, I don't like being not successful [as a starter], and that's what I ultimately want to be, but when you're helping your team out, it's rewarding. When I got on a roll last year [in relief], that felt good."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.