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BOB RYAN

Delcarmen's getting back into fast lane

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He gets the big ice bag on his elbow, he gets the humongous ice bag on his shoulder, and that's probably the way it's always going to be. You want the reality of throwing a baseball for a living? Manny Delcarmen is only 23.

His aging process was accelerated dramatically on April 22, 2003. That's the day he threw a two-seam fastball that changed his baseball life forever.

"We were playing the Dunedin Blue Jays," he recalls. "Robert Person had been brought in from the Phillies, if I'm correct, and he was taking my start. He only went an inning and a third, and I got him out of that. I had two good innings, and then in the fourth I threw a two-seam fastball and my elbow blew out. Suddenly, I went from 94 [m.p.h.] to 78 and I was bouncing curves 4 feet short."

Delcarmen says the problem actually can be traced to his previous start, when he threw a changeup "and a couple of fingers on my hand felt numb." He threw an estimated eight or 10 additional pitches before he finally was pulled from the game. What had been a confident young athlete whose body never once had betrayed him was now a scared kid who feared he was permanently damaged goods.

"I thought I was done," he says.

What did he know? He was entering totally new territory.

He had two options: 1. quit. 2. work. He chose No. 2. He had the requisite Tommy John surgery and set out to salvage his career.

He worked hard on his rehab for 10 months. "I got through it because of the support I had from my family, especially my dad, and my fiancee," he says.

It was a particularly rough time for Annaclarice Silva, the young lady who was now confronted with a grizzly bear for a boyfriend.

"She says it was the worst summer ever, and I don't blame her for saying that," Delcarmen maintains. "I was bitter. It was all so hard to accept. In high school I could throw seven innings, sit out a day, come back and throw seven more innings."

The school in question was West Roxbury High. Manny Delcarmen just happens to be the best high school baseball player to come out of Boston in about 40 years. There have been many good local ballplayers (Tony C, Richie Hebner, Jerry Remy, etc.) but the city itself had been a baseball wasteland for decades until this kid began blowing away batters with a 93-94 m.p.h. fastball at West Roxbury.

The day of the 2000 draft was a Hyde Park neighborhood happening. The cerveza was flowing as family and friends gathered in the hopes that Manny would be a first-round draft pick, and, better yet, a Red Sox first-round draft pick. He turned out to be the Red Sox' second-round pick. OK, close enough.

"It was huge," Delcarmen recalls. "There were cameramen following me around for a month."

Now he finds himself in the locker room of the world champions, one of the many pups allowed in the company of the stars during these early days of spring training.

"I'm having fun," he says. "It's a lot different than I'm used to. Just hanging around these guys, you can see how tight they are. You can see how they came together to win a World Series."

His career is back on track. He felt he was ready to resume serious throwing at last year's spring training, but the club elected to err on the side of caution, holding him back until June, when he was dispatched to Sarasota. He pitched 73 innings, going 3-6 with a 4.68 ERA. He gave up 84 hits, but the big number was 76. That was his strikeout total. Paired with just 20 walks, it showed that his stuff was coming back. After a stint in the Arizona Fall League, he now is being slotted to begin the season with Double A Portland in the Eastern League.

"He's making progress," confirms general manager Theo Epstein. "He's had a lot of maturation since his surgery and rehab. There's been a great two-way dialogue between himself and the major league development people. He understands what he needs to work on and how to go about it."

Delcarmen remains a power pitcher. His fastball is back up in the 90s. He augments his basic pitch with a curve and a changeup. All three still need refinement, as he strives to make the transition from thrower to pitcher.

"My changeup is a lot better," he says, "but my curveball is not where I need it to be."

Of course, a lot of 23-year-olds in a lot of organizations have that same equipment. A lot of things will determine which of them ever will hear their names announced in a big league game, and very few of them have to do with raw ability. They all have that.

What's between the ears is always the difference, and that's one reason Delcarmen is so grateful to have this opportunity to be in the big league camp.

"You can see the consistency of these big league guys as they go about their business," he explains. "When you get to their level, so much of it is about preparation."

Delcarmen smiles when he thinks of the kid who was drafted by the Red Sox so long ago. "High school," he says, "was easy."

It's always easy when all you have to do is rear back and throw.

One of the reasons those low-level minor league managers never can be paid enough is that they have to put up with the basic instability of kids who are facing athletic frustration, and sometimes outright failure, for the first time in their lives. Delcarmen's baptismal year in the Gulf Coast League was overtly successful (4-2, 2.54, 62 strikeouts, and 19 walks in 46 innings), but there were moments of stress, and he had to learn how to handle them.

"You have to learn that if you have a bad outing you must let it go," he explains. "Right now, I think my head's on straight. I feel strong mentally."

The ice bags are an unfortunate part of the deal now, but at least there is a deal. Not too long ago, Manny Delcarmen feared he was heading home. Now it's Fort Myers today and Portland tomorrow. Life is good for the kid from Hyde Park.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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