CHATTANOOGA -- The storm clouds were rolling in fast Saturday afternoon over BellSouth Park, thunderstorms barreling up from the southwest. As the skies darkened, Richie Gardner didn't seem to notice.
The former University of Arizona standout was in the home bullpen, firing away for Chattanooga pitching coach Bill Moloney, working out the final kinks before his scheduled return from the disabled list on Monday. Gardner, one year removed from a strong rookie season in pro ball, has been sidelined for the past week with what he called a strain in his right biceps.
And as he was putting the finishing touches on his mid-afternoon side session, it didn't take a meteorologist to see that the skies would be opening up very soon. But as one storm over southeastern Tennessee was about to begin, Gardner was hopeful that a storm of another of sort was coming to an end.
The 23-year-old right-hander has struggled this season for the Lookouts in the Double-A Southern League, posting a 2-2 mark with a 7.85 ERA in six starts. While he has 30 strikeouts, his hits per nine innings is an alarming 14.06, nearly six hits higher than last season when he went 13-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 29 games (23 starts) for Chattanooga and Class A Potomac.
Both Gardner and Moloney, however, seem to feel that the first seven weeks of the season had more to do with the youngster's health than somehow having lost something on the mound since last September. In fact, after having rested his arm and thrown a pair of sides, Saturday included, expectations are high for when Gardner makes his return to the rotation sometime this week.
"He did come here last year and showed a lot of maturity and poise and competitiveness," Moloney said. "This year he has struggled a bit, but in his defense he didn't tell us early on that he wasn't feeling well. He wasn't getting the extension, and he was coming off on some pitches. But the last two sides he looked like the old Richie Gardner.
"He's a kid who I wouldn't call off the wall but he's different in a good way. He's not a wise guy; he's just happy-go-lucky. But when it comes to putting on the 'uni' and getting in between the lines, he does his work. His willingness to take the ball when he was hurt was something he thought he could work through. By not saying anything, he was showing his willingness to compete. But it snowballed a little, and he realized he was going to a gunfight with five bullets in a six-shooter. A couple of starts, and he'll be like last year."
Gardner said he was always taught not to be weak and that by saying he was hurt, he felt he would be admitting weakness. He acknowledges, though, that immaturity played a part in his decision to remain silent. Gardner was still able to pitch with the injury, but his velocity was down and his command was just a bit off. And, his slider didn't possess its normal amount of bite.
But in finally speaking up, he was able to correct the problem. At least he hopes so after the two positive side sessions. And after resting the arm and icing it for a week, he's ready to rejoin the Lookouts rotation and continue the journey up the ladder to Cincinnati.
"It was a little disappointing knowing I couldn't compete," said Gardner, whom the Reds tabbed in the sixth round of the 2003 draft after he went 9-3 with a 4.49 ERA at Arizona. "I know I have it in me, but it was a little frustrating. But the game has its ups and downs, and you can't expect every year to be like last year. It's been a month, I've worked out the kinks, and I'm going to let what happened go."
Gardner grew up just outside of San Francisco and says he was a big Will Clark fan as a kid. Pitching-wise, though, he favored Tom Glavine because he is so "smooth and easy" and "never gets mad on the mound."
The same can be said for Gardner. He's admittedly a bit quirky -- his spiked bleach-blonde hair is a bit of a giveaway. Not much seems to bother the youngster, though, who looks like he just walked off a beach or the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.
The Santa Rosa native loves to surf -- not surfing isn't in his contract -- and he will steal away at times simply to be alone and draw. Gardner says he likes to disappear and fancies himself a bit of an artist even if he doesn't always have time to put pencil to paper. He should have even less time now that he's coming off the disabled list.
The thunderstorm eventually rolled through Chattanooga late Saturday afternoon, and there was baseball to be played. The Reds are hoping that Gardner's storm clouds have also passed and that brighter days are ahead.