PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Before he found his new beginning, before he gave himself a chance to make it with the Mets, before he took everything he learned about pitching and turned it upside down, Greg Burke had to arrive at a dead end.
It happened 11 months ago in Sarasota, Fla., three days before the conclusion of spring training, when the Orioles informed him that he likely would be released. He was nearing 30, with a wife, a newborn son and a fastball that hovered around 90 mph. He hadn't pitched in the big leagues in two years since playing for the Padres, his only season in the majors.
"We ran the gamut," said Megan Burke, who talked her husband through the night he thought his career might be over.
Burke sifted through his options. Not one was good. He could pitch in Japan. Or hope for a minor-league deal with another club. Or leave the game altogether for a job, perhaps in medical sales.
He already had made it to the majors once, the reward for his extraordinary ability to make the most of his ordinary arm.
Still, Burke couldn't bring himself to walk away, not until he exhausted one final option.
The next morning, Burke began his second act, taking the first steps in his conversion into a submarine-style pitcher.
"It was just a last-ditch effort," said Burke, who is pushing hard for a spot in the Mets' bullpen. "That just tells you where I was at. I was just throwing everything off the wall, trying to think of what I'm going to do."
'How do I get back?'
Nothing in baseball has ever come easily for Burke. When the Mets chose him in the 42nd round of the 2000 draft, he opted to pitch at Duke. But when he went undrafted out of college, he spent a season in independent baseball before going through a tryout camp and signing with the Padres in 2006.
"I've always felt like I had to fight uphill," he said. "Everything had to be hard. I had to grind through it."
His steady climb paid off in May 2009 when the Padres added him to their bullpen. It should have been a night of celebration. But as Megan Burke remembers it, all her husband could think about was getting a full night's sleep. He wanted to be fully rested for the next game.
"He was almost on a full sprint," she said, recalling her husband's hurried walk from the ballpark to the hotel. "It's like he didn't get to appreciate the moment because he was so consumed by getting himself there and intending to stay there. It's almost like he held it so tight that when it wasn't there, it was like, 'What just happened? How do I get back?' "
Burke needed every ounce of his talent to string together a season in which he went 3-3 with a 4.14 ERA. He made 48 appearances with the Padres in 2009, though he missed part of the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
It would be two years until his shoulder felt right again.
In 2010, Burke's ERA skyrocketed to 5.68 in 53 games at Triple-A. In 2011, still stuck at Triple-A, he posted a 5.70 ERA in 64 games. The Padres cut ties with him at season's end, leaving Burke at yet another crossroads.
And after what his wife called "a delicate conversation" during which they discussed the possibility of quitting the game, Burke decided to give baseball one last chance in 2012.
'Can you look at me . . . ?'
Without a team, Burke went to work on his pitching mechanics, with the hope that a few changes might revive his arm. A friend put him in touch with Rick Peterson, the former Mets pitching coach, who currently serves as director of pitching development for the Orioles.
The first step involved isolating the flaws in Burke's delivery. Peterson used a biomechanical video analysis to recommend adjustments, which the two put into place during a throwing session at a high school field near Burke's home in New Jersey. The changes added some life to Burke's fastball.
Impressed by what he saw, Peterson convinced the Orioles to give Burke a tryout. He performed well enough to earn a minor-league deal and an invite to camp, though it proved to be a temporary respite.
As spring training came to a close last season, Burke knew he was on the bubble and that his last chance at returning to the major leagues could end. One morning, sensing that the day had come, Burke reported to the ballpark early. It happened as he'd expected.
He was summoned into an office and given the news by an executive who didn't bother to sugarcoat the fact that Burke probably would be released. But before he left the complex that day, Burke sought out Peterson. He asked for a favor: "Can you look at me tomorrow?"
Never once in all his seasons as a pro had he climbed a pitcher's mound and attempted to throw a baseball submarine-style to home plate. Never once had the thought even crossed his mind. Yet it was his best idea. Unlike learning a knuckleball, Burke figured that learning to drop down was at least within the realm of reality.
"I had to do something," he said. "You put all that shame aside and just say 'I've got to do it.' "
'I've never seen that happen'
The transformation began with Burke simply going through the motions. Before he even picked up a baseball, Burke mimicked the action of the submarine delivery, with Peterson offering pointers nearby.
They quickly progressed to an actual bullpen session that would be witnessed by several Orioles executives, who ultimately would decide if Burke's experiment had worked. After throwing about 20 pitches, Burke looked up and noticed that the executives were still there. They liked what they saw.
Peterson upped the stakes. On neighboring fields, the Orioles were staging a pair of intrasquad games, one featuring Class A hitters and the others with players from as high as Triple-A. Peterson suggested that Burke face some hitters. None of them stood a chance.
"They're blind," Peterson remembered thinking. "They have no idea where this ball is coming from."
In the space of about a half-hour, Burke went from throwing bullpen sessions to facing live hitters. Peterson also noticed something else. Most pitchers who drop down lose a bit off their fastballs. A few maintain their velocity. But Burke gained more life on his fastball, which topped out at 92 mph.
Said Peterson: "I've never seen that happen."
His slider benefited as well. Peterson noticed that the pitch broke later than it had before.
"This is a good thing," Burke thought at the time. "At least maybe I've bought myself a couple of days.''
Of course, he bought himself much more. Instead of releasing him, the Orioles kept him around to work on his new delivery. After extended spring training, they sent Burke to the minors, first to Double-A Bowie and then to Triple-A Norfolk. He baffled hitters who had known him only as a middling over-the-top righthander, not as a menacing submariner. His new motion turned him into a ground-ball machine.
"It's got a little more funk, a little more deception, than normal," said Jamie Hoffmann, an outfielder in Mets camp who was Burke's teammate at Norfolk. "I talked to the guys, like my buddies who faced him, and they're like, 'Man, I want nothing to do with him.' "
'A place where it's fun'
Burke finished the year in Norfolk with 17 saves and a 1.53 ERA. He allowed one home run all season.
Mets scouts took note, sending glowing reports to Paul DePodesta, the team's vice president of player development and scouting. They noted that Burke proved effective against both righties and lefties. They liked that he could command his arsenal.
"You put those things together and suddenly this guy has a chance to get some of the final nine outs or be a setup guy," said DePodesta, who remembered Burke from their time together with the Padres.
The Mets signed Burke to a minor-league deal in early November before adding him to the 40-man roster. The move not only protected him from being poached in the Rule 5 draft but improved his prospects of reaching the majors.
In four Grapefruit League appearances, Burke has posted an ERA of 7.20, inflated by one outing in which he allowed three runs. The transformation remains a work in progress, as evidenced Thursday. Though he recorded two strikeouts in one inning of work, he allowed a solo homer on a fastball he left up in the zone.
"You can tell at times he doesn't get over the ball, or the ball will tail a little bit instead of getting that sink he wants," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who is intrigued by the different look Burke could provide out of the bullpen. "But when he stays over that ball, he gets good sink and keeps the ball in the ballpark, so he's an interesting guy."
It's precisely what Burke envisioned that morning in Sarasota only 11 months ago.
"You're finally at a place where it's fun," Megan Burke told her husband that day he reinvented himself on the fly. "Ride it out as long as you can."
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