Five years after he was a first-round pick, Matt Hobgood is on the path to the Major Leagues he and the Baltimore Orioles had always envisioned.
Hobgood, who missed the 2012 season while recovering from surgery, was stellar in a Class A relief appearance Tuesday. He allowed a walk and a single -- both of which came after 4 2/3 perfect innings -- in five shutout frames of Delmarva's 9-2 loss to Lakewood. He struck out seven.
Baltimore picked Hobgood (4-0) fifth overall in the 2009 Draft, and he began to experience shoulder problems almost immediately after signing and reporting to the Bluefield Orioles in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
"I took off a month after my last high school playoff game," he said. "When I got to Bluefield, I started the throwing program there, throwing from 120 feet. From the time I started that program in Bluefield, my arm wasn't ever right. I can't say what happened or why it happened, but something wasn't right."
His fastball was rarely able to reach into the 90s the way it did when he was pitching in high school in California. He finished 2011 with an 0-8 record and an 8.76 ERA between the Gulf Coast League and the short-season New York-Penn League.
"I think with any first-round pick, there's some sort of expectation, and with a top-five pick, there's even more. Going into 2009, I was ready to take that head on," Hobgood said. "But coming out of the gate and never flashing what I knew I had, not being able to do things that got me drafted in the first place, was hard for me.
"I like to rise to the occasion. To go out year after year after year and fail at that was really hard."
In April 2012, he underwent rotator cuff surgery that required him to miss the campaign. Hobgood went through a rigorous rehabilitation program from May through July and had time off until he began playing catch at the end of December.
"If ever there's good timing for a surgery, that's as good as you can have it," he said. Still, "rehab was tough. There were times when my arm really did not feel well. I had people tell me that I'm not going to make it back or that a lot of people don't make it back from shoulder surgeries. That was something that drove me, actually, to work even harder -- to prove those people wrong."
Tuesday marked Hobgood's longest outing since Aug. 24, 2011, his final game of that season with Aberdeen, but he's been almost as sharp in nearly every outing since his return to the mound this year. In 11 appearances, he's allowed runs in three and earned runs in only two, thus far posting a 1.17 ERA.
He may not be considered a top prospect anymore, but that doesn't bother him.
"I'm indifferent about it to be honest. People can put whatever label they want on me, whether they want to say I'm a prospect or I'm not or I'm getting to old," he said. "As long as I'm pitching well and pitching consistently, that's the big thing for me. If I'm on somebody's prospect list, great. If I'm not, I still know in my mind that I'm going to pitch in the big leagues someday."
When he entered the game with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, the BlueClaws had already scored nine times. Watching from the bullpen, Hobgood got the impression that he could probably quiet the Lakewood lineup.
"They were hitting the ball," he said, "but I felt if I was able to get my fastball in on their lefties, I'd be able to have a lot of success."
The game plan was apparently a good one and the 22-year-old righty executed it nearly perfectly. He got out of the frame without incident, and of the 15 outs Hobgood recorded, seven were on ground balls, and he said, broke three or four Lakewood bats along the way. He cruised into the eighth inning and struck out the first two batters of that frame without realizing that he hadn't allowed a baserunner, but then walked Brian Pointer and Art Charles dropped in a bloop single.
"I saw Mike [Givens] warming up in the eighth," he said. "With all that struggle in the last inning -- I wasn't focused enough -- I figured that was probably it. Up to that point, I was really happy with how things were going. I still was after, I guess. For me to go five 13 months out of surgery, that's good.
Hobgood knows he has a long road ahead of him, but that he's on the right track. For the first time since high school, he's been able to throw consistently in the 90s.
"I don't know what it was tonight, but I felt like I was throwing pretty hard. I know I touched 95, and maybe 96 a couple times. In other outings this year, I've touched 97," he said. "The doctor told me the velocity was more than likely going to take a year-and-a-half to return actually. So who knows? Maybe there's even more in the tank."
But Hobgood's goals remain modest, and the same that the Orioles have for him -- to pitch a full, healthy season. Beyond that, he'd love to be a starter.
"That's why they drafted me, I think, and they want me be a workhorse in the big leagues at some point," he said. "Right now, they have me as a long man, I guess you could say, and that's maybe where I need to be right now. I'd like to start again, but I realize I didn't pitch all last year, and I pitched only  innings in 2011. I know I have to take it slow. For the time being, working out of the bullpen, I'm having fun.
"It's been awesome. When I think about it, it's just a blessing to come back and throw pain-free, with no setbacks yet this year. I'm just glad to go out cnd compete, because that's what I love to do -- I'm a competitor."
Shane Watson, the Phillies' No. 12 prospect, improved to 3-3 with the win for Lakewood. He allowed a hit and two walks while striking out four over five scoreless innings.