PITTSBURGH — Edinson Volquez’s renaissance began with a simple game of catch.
During his brief session with Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage on that January day at the team’s training facility in Florida, the talented but erratic right-hander listened as Searage outlined a plan to help the 31-year-old regain the form that once made him an All-Star.
“He felt wanted,” Searage said. “That builds trust.”
Ten months later, Volquez will try to repay that trust by sending the Pirates into the NL Division Series for the second straight year when he starts Wednesday night’s wild-card game against San Francisco.
The raucous scene that awaits Volquez at PNC Park is in stark contrast to his ignominious exit from San Diego last summer, when the floundering Padres released him after a miserable stretch in which his ERA ballooned to 6.01.
“It’s kind of sad a little bit,” Volquez said. “You feel like your career is over.”
He ended 2013 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he showed minor improvement before hitting the free-agent market. But most teams hardly seemed interested in signing a pitcher who spent a half-decade struggling with his command and composure.
Yet he found a home in Pittsburgh, where the clubhouse has become an Ellis Island of sorts for players looking to regain something they’ve lost.
A year ago it was left-hander Francisco Liriano, who signed with the Pirates and put together a 16-8 season that included a victory over Cincinnati in the wild-card game. Liriano and Volquez are good friends, and while the $5 million flier Pittsburgh took on Volquez to be a back-of-the-rotation guy raised eyebrows, he remained confident he could make the changes necessary to become competitive.
“People (who) know about baseball, they knew I was really close to getting ready to go,” Volquez said.
Searage tweaked Volquez’s delivery. Pirates catcher Russell Martin worked with him to set a steady pace during games, often hustling to the mound when Volquez starts working too quickly. When Volquez gets out of rhythm, his mechanics run amok.
“Early on he couldn’t control it. He had elbows and knees flying all over the place,” Searage said. “Now he’s able to control it better. That’s the biggest thing between a major leaguer and a minor leaguer — they basically have the same stuff, but it all comes up to (their mental approach).”
Volquez responded by going 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA in a team-high 32 starts, the lone constant in a rotation that saw Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton spend a significant amount of time on the disabled list. Volquez went 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his last 11 starts, his consistency one of the main reasons the Pirates sent Cole to the mound in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati in a last-ditch bid to win the NL Central. Cole was brilliant but Pittsburgh lost 4-1, putting its hopes of an extended playoff stay in Volquez’s maturing hands.
It’s the biggest start of his career, but Volquez isn’t exactly sweating it. He spent Monday laying around his house napping. On Tuesday he traded jokes with other Latin players before playing long toss and shagging flies during batting practice.
“I’ve got to pitch my game and be myself,” he said.
It’s unlikely it can go any worse than his other postseason start. The Philadelphia Phillies tagged Volquez for four runs in 1 2-3 innings during Game 1 of the 2010 NL Division Series when he played for Cincinnati. Phillies starter Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter that day to start a three-game sweep.
Four years later, Volquez faces another formidable task: beating a team that thrives this time of year. The Giants have captured two World Series titles this decade, including a resilient run in 2012 when they won six elimination games on their way to the championship.
Most of the core that celebrated with a champagne shower after sweeping the Tigers in the World Series two years ago remains intact, including left-hander Madison Bumgarner. The 25-year-old is coming off a solid regular season in which he went 18-10 with a 2.98 ERA. He lost his only start against Pittsburgh, giving up five runs in four innings on July 28 at AT&T Park.
The vibe will be decidedly different this time around on the other side of the country. And that’s just fine by Bumgarner. He’s been here before, and so have most of the other guys in the San Francisco clubhouse, including his manager.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’re going to see guys who are comfortable playing in this type of game,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re all about winning. I don’t think they’ll be affected by any kind of element or environment.”
Including whatever Volquez might have in store. He hardly resembles the enigma who could never find his footing in San Diego. Now he’s flourishing in Pittsburgh with a chance to cement his transformation from lost cause to something else entirely.
“He’s become a complete pitcher,” Searage said. “His evolution of becoming a major league pitcher has been nothing but forward.”
Another important step awaits.