Welcome Back, Mark Mulder

Welcome back, Mr. Mulder.

It may have only been an inning. It may have come with a six-run lead. It may have only been a tease, yet another heartbreak just waiting to happen. Nonetheless, Mark Mulder took the mound on Monday night, and it was good.

Before Mulder came here to St. Louis, he was one of my favorite pitchers. I didn't catch a ton of his games, but every time I could, I would sit down and watch Mulder throw. It's tough now, honestly, to remember just how good the guy was. We only saw the junk-balling, already having problems Mulder here in St. Louis. But in his Oakland days, the man was really something. He threw nearly as hard as his stablemate Tim Hudson, with a curve almost as good as that of Oakland's other lefty, Barry Zito. To top it all off, he had impeccable command and a dominating splitter that just chewed hitters up.

Of course, by the time we got him, he was already beginning to show signs of wear and tear. His strikeout rate dropped off the table in the second half of the 2004 season. Scouts wondered where the pop on his fastball had gone. His ERA crept steadily upward. A Cy Young candidate only the year before, Mulder now found himself the subject of whispers around the sport, whispers that the big lefty might, just might, be damaged goods.

Enter the Cardinals and Walt Jocketty. The Cards were coming off a 105-win season and a trip to the World Series. They were an offensive juggernaut with a starting rotation that featured lots of innings, but few big time arms. Their ERA leader during the 2004 season was a former phenom turned rehab project named Chris Carpenter who had come back from major shoulder surgery to pitch well, only to then be struck down in the stretch run by a biceps injury. In the Series that year, the Cardinals were exposed by a Red Sox team with a big time starting rotation and 86 years of pissed off on their side. By the time the Cards got to Boston, they were exhausted, having been taken to the brink by Houston and their brand new center fielder, a young unknown by the name of Carlos Beltran.

Woody Williams gave a gutsy performance in Game 1, but the Cardinals simply couldn't contain the Boston attack, and after their victory in the opener, the Red Sox just had too much momentum on their side. St. Louis had no answer, and quickly found themselves swept out of the series. Afterward, the Cardinal brass decided that what they really lacked, what they needed to take that final step, was an ace. A dominant, frontline starting pitcher to shut down the opposition and anchor the rotation. And so the search began.

The Cards made a play for Tim Hudson of the Athletics, but were outbid by the Atlanta Braves. They then discovered that Billy Beane, the Oakland GM, was willing to part with Hudson's left-handed counterpart, Mark Mulder.

Now here was a coup, they thought. Mulder still had a year on his current deal, at a very reasonable rate. Best of all, he was a lefty. The Cards had only right-handers in their rotation; Mulder would be the perfect counterpart. The deal was struck. The Cardinals parted ways with Daric Barton, their most promising prospect, a middle reliever by the name of Kiko Calero, and a young righty by the name of Dan Haren, who had actually been their most effective hurler during the World Series.

We all know how it went from there. The Cardinals got their ace. It just didn't happen to be Mark Mulder. Chris Carpenter won the Cy Young award that year as the team sailed to another division title. Mulder himself won 16 games and somehow posted an ERA of 3.64, despite peripheral stats that all pointed in the wrong direction.

Some inventive wags on the Internet christened Mulder "Swamp Gas,'' because his success seemed to be a complete illusion; no one could really figure out how he was doing it. In Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS, Mulder stepped onto the mound at Busch Stadium to try and keep the Cards' season alive. They were down, three games to two, against those pesky Astros. Just two nights before, Albert Pujols had hit one of the most dramatic home runs anyone had ever seen, a home run that Brad Lidge still sees every time he closes his eyes. The Cardinals were poised for a dramatic comeback and a return to the World Series, this time with the pitching staff that they were so sorely missing the year before.

Of course, it didn't happen. Mulder wasn't able to navigate the bottom of the Houston order, and the Cardinals were helpless against the onslaught of Roy Oswalt, and Busch Stadium saw another team's celebration for the second year in a row. The stadium was torn down. Mulder came back in 2006 and started off strong, but soon began having trouble with his arm. He didn't even have the stuff he had in his Swamp Gas year; his shoulder was in tatters. He rested and rehabbed. He came back and got shelled. He finally went under the knife shortly before his team's miracle run to championship glory, and watched from the dugout.

Since then, Mulder has become a bit like the Chupacabra. Many claim to have seen him, throwing bullpen sessions here, tossing live BP there. Still, the accounts always had the feel of legend, the stuff of tall tales told by the drunk to the gullible. Surely they had not seen the Mark Mulder. Surely they had simply seen a garden variety left-hander and mistook it for the legendary Muldoo.

All of that history, all of that trauma, all of those crushed expectations and dashed hopes, stepped on to the mound with Mark Mulder on Monday night.

So many of us, myself included, had just given up on him, given up the hope of ever seeing Mulder pitch well again. We called it a sunk cost and said the team needed to just cut bait and move on. We watched Danny Haren turn into a perennial Cy Young contender and sighed over what might have been. We watched Daric Barton come up last September and lay waste to American League pitching. We wished most of all for the Mark Mulder era to just be over.

And yet there he was last night, up on the mound again. His shoulder has undergone massive surgeries, his confidence has been shaken, and he's had to completely change his delivery in order to get back here. Yet still, there he was. And you know what? He looked good. He may still not be the Mulder of old, but the ball came out of his hand smooth and free, with a distinct pop when it hit the mitt. He touched 93 mph, and tossed a curveball that completely fooled Endy Chavez. After all that he's been through, and all that we've been through with him, Mark Mulder was finally back on the mound.

It may have only been one inning. But for that inning, it was all okay again, like none of it had ever happened. It may still turn out to be just one more tease in the story, building us all up so that we can be disappointed all over again. But last night, Mark Mulder finally returned to the hill.

Welcome back, Mark.

- Aaron Schafer

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