OAKLAND — A's general manager Billy Beane raised eyebrows in November when he re-signed veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon.
The burly right-hander was in the midst of serving a 50-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test, his 40th birthday was less than seven months away and the A's roster was loaded with young pitching talent. What's more, the move stood in stark contrast with the Giant's decision to part ways with 2012 All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera, who received a suspension for failing a performance-enhancing drug test a week before Colon. The signing was fodder for punch lines across the Twittersphere.
Through 88 games, Colon is still the subject of the odd wise crack on social media, but American League batters aren't laughing. Right now, Colon, who turned 40 in May, is 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA and he's leading the league in fewest walks per nine innings (1.11).
Colon, a native of the Dominican Republic, first cracked the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1997. He made his first All-Star Game appearance in 1998 and received the honor again in 2005 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, the year he won the AL Cy Young Award.
But Colon's career started unraveling a year later when he experienced soreness in his right shoulder. He pitched 10 games in 2006, seven in 2008 and 12 in 2009 before sitting out the 2010 season because of damage to his rotator cuff and right elbow. In March 2010, he received a stem cell transplant to repair his right shoulder, raising suspicions that he'd used human-growth hormone to recover, but no wrongdoing was ever discovered.
Colon returned to the mound with the New York Yankees in 2011 and last year he went 10-9 for the A's with a 3.43 ERA and threw 38 consecutive strikes in an April 2012 start against the Angels. Four months later, he was suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
At the time, fans and pundits expected the aging right-hander to disappear off the radar screen, but right now he is throwing like the Cy Young Award version of himself from eight years ago.
“I don't think he's pitching any differently and it doesn't look like his stuff's any different from what we've seen,” A's manager Bob Melvin said. “Like anybody, once you get on a little bit of a roll, you start to feel that much more confidence.”
To say that Colon's on a roll is an understatement. Prior to his loss against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday, Colon had won eight consecutive starts, producing a 1.37 ERA and holding opponents to a .244 batting average. He also won the AL's Pitcher of the Month award for June after going a perfect 5-0.
“He's just going to pound the strike zone and he's not going to walk a lot of guys, so you've got to put the ball in play,” A's catcher John Jaso said. “The ball is moving so much, he gets hitters to go after pitches that aren't necessarily in their wheelhouse.”
Colon is also known for working fast, which keeps the defense behind him locked in.
“He gets the ball, gets back on the mound — it doesn't give you any time to lollygag around,” right fielder Josh Reddick said. “It keeps you on your toes.”
The 15-year veteran is also a stabilizing presence in a rotation that features three sophomores and a rookie.
Left-hander Tommy Milone said Colon's ability to bounce back from adverse situations rubs off on the young guys.
“Nothing really fazes him,” Milone said. “He's been in every kind of situation and the most important thing we can take from him — how he handles his business.”
Colon isn't a vocal leader, but he helps to keep things loose in the A's clubhouse by being a prankster.
“He's always looking for something to make a loud noise when no one's expecting it, so you jump and your heart stops. He's always slapping something against the wall, getting everyone jumping and laughing,” Jaso said, adding: “We all love him here.”
But Colon's performance is raising suspicions that he's still dabbling with PEDs this season. In June, ESPN reported that Colon is among 20 players that could be suspended in the near future for being associated with a Miami-area Biogenesis clinic linked to PEDs. If Colon receives a suspension, he would serve 100 games as a second-time offender.
Jaso said the prospect of losing Colon isn't a distraction in the A's clubhouse.
“It doesn't affect our day-to-day stuff or his day-to-day stuff,” he said. “I haven't noticed any changes.”
As usual, Colon is unfazed by the rumors swirling over his head. He said he's enjoys playing for the A's and working with the young players.
“It feels so good,” Colon said through interpretor Ariel Prieto. “I can be an example for them. I'm a veteran guy, so they can follow me.”