Former outfielder Lane trying to make it on mound
Love of the game fuels position change as southpaw awaits another big league shot
SAN DIEGO -- It was exactly six years and one month ago Thursday when Jason Lane got his final at-bat in the big leagues, a pinch-hitting appearance for the Padres during the waning days of the 2007 regular season. He's been trying to get back ever since, though Lane is taking a different swing at a career revival, one that doesn't involve him using a bat at all.
At 36, Lane is attempting to make it back to the big leagues as a left-handed pitcher with the Padres' Triple-A affiliate in Tucson, Ariz. The road that has brought him to this point has been equal parts strange and rewarding. Now, all Lane wants is another shot at the big leagues.
"Anytime that you're in Triple-A, it's fun and exciting," Lane said. "Because now you never know what could happen. When you're playing in an independent league, you feel like you're 15 calls away from the big leagues."
Lane is not on San Diego's 40-man roster, and there's no promise he will be after rosters expand on Sunday. But he is satisfied that he's done his part to get noticed.
In July, the Padres, looking for reinforcements on the pitching side, signed Lane for organizational depth. He is 2-2 with a 5.72 ERA in 10 games in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, which isn't an easy place to pitch to get outs.
"When I made the conversion to pitching, there were a few times when I was like, 'Come on, what are you doing? Who does this when they're 35?' My next thought was, 'How can I complain?' I knew there was something still there," Lane said. "The question was, 'Would anyone else see it that way?'
"I know the pieces of the puzzle would have to fall into place for me to make it. But I know I've at least put myself in a position for it."
Lane, who played for the Astros from 2002-07, has morphed from a brawny outfielder who never did anything less than full speed to a pitcher who now relies more on command, guts and guile.
What would Lane the hitter think of Lane the pitcher?
"Jason Lane the hitter would realize that he was probably in for a chess match and that Jason Lane the pitcher wasn't going to give in," Lane said. "It's going to be a battle."
It has been just that for Lane since he took that last swing for San Diego in 2007. He bounced around the Minor Leagues, still as an outfielder, from 2008-11, though that return to the big leagues never came.
After signing a Minor League deal with the D-backs -- and former Padres general manager Kevin Towers -- during the winter before the 2012 season, Towers floated the notion of pitching to Lane.
The idea was hardly foreign to Lane and was one he had thought about before. After all, he was a two-way player at USC. Lane was actually the winning pitcher in the College World Series title game in 1998 against Arizona State, a game in which he also hit a grand slam.
"I've always thought about pitching," Lane said.
Brad Ausmus, a teammate for parts of six seasons in Houston, noticed Lane's arm strength a long time ago, and he actually floated the same idea years before.
"I remember one day Jason was taking infield practice at first base and I was the catcher," said Ausmus, now a special assistant with the Padres. "He threw the ball home and I could tell it had pretty good life to it. I told him the way that left-handed pitchers stuck around, he should try pitching."
Lane pitched for the D-backs in Spring Training in 2012 and was eventually optioned to Triple-A Reno. After posting a 7.59 ERA in 15 games, he was released in May. Lane caught on with an independent team, the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, going 9-5 with a 3.17 ERA.
Lane signed a Minor League deal with the Twins, but he was released in Spring Training. So he went back to Sugar Land, where he was even better than he was the previous season, going 8-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 99 2/3 innings. Lane learned a lot about himself as a pitcher in Sugar Land, and he counts the experience there as critical in his development as a pitcher.
"I feel I have a pretty good understanding, especially coming from the hitting side of it … what guys are looking for," said Lane, who throws a fastball that run in the high 80s to low 90s. "For me, I just try to keep pitching simple. If I start to get too mechanically oriented, then it can get overwhelming. It's just about throwing strikes.
"My strengths are my command. I have to move the fastball where I want it and move it around. And my secondary pitches are important, since I'm not an overpowering type. My changeup is my best pitch. It's enough to get guys off-balance. I pride myself on throwing strikes. I haven't walked too many guys."
Lane isn't just a pitcher, he actually sounds like one, too. Former Astros teammate Roy Oswalt, now with the Rockies, has noticed as much each time the two speak on the phone.
"It's funny, because he'll be watching the games I pitch and he'll try to tweak me," Oswalt said, smiling, sitting in front of his locker at Coors Field.
Oswalt was one of the former teammates Lane consulted with before giving pitching a shot. The lessons Oswalt shared with him are still ones he carries with him to the mound, words he holds close.
"The biggest thing I told Jason was to not beat yourself on the mound," Oswalt said. "Don't put guys on base, don't get behind hitters. Attack the zone. It doesn't matter how hard you throw, you have still got to attack the zone."
Lane has provided Tucson with much more than innings.
"You talk to coaches, his former teammates and the staff, and they rave about Jason as an individual," said Randy Smith, San Diego's vice president of player development and international scouting.
Lane considers himself "approachable" and doesn't mind helping out a younger teammate -- well, they are all younger -- if he has questions, concerns or just wants to hear stories of what it was like to play in the World Series in 2005 or about that home run he hit in Game 3.
"Guys do come up and ask me questions from time to time," Lane said. "And I'll feel certain guys out. I feel like I've have some unique experiences in my career that I love sharing with guys. I have a passion for the game, having gone the route I've gone."
Pitcher Anthony Bass, who joined the Padres on Monday from Tucson, said he's benefited from Lane's knowledge.
"One of the things I really liked was the perspective he has as a pitcher who is a former position player," Bass said. "He knows what to look for. He's helped my game by making me a smarter pitcher."
Lane certainly had some strong mentors along the way.
"I've always enjoyed picking the brains of older players," Lane said. "I learned a lot from Jeff Bagwell and looked up to him. The same with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, too. I still talk to Roy about it. Those guys all helped me when I was a younger player. I really appreciated that."
Those days with the Astros remain vivid and fresh in Lane's memory.
"It seems like yesterday, yet as I think back on it, I realize it was a long time ago," Lane said. "It's funny, but I think once you have played in the World Series, every time it comes around, I still feel like I should be a part of it.
"All you ever want to do is get back to that [World Series]. Every postseason, I find I'm getting those same feelings all over again."
It was in 2005 when Lane hit a career-high 26 home runs for the Astros, who finished with a flurry, going 73-42-1 from May 1 to the end of the regular season. They beat the Braves and Cardinals in the playoffs before being swept in four games by the White Sox in the World Series. Lane hit three home runs in the playoffs that year, one in the World Series.
"I think the second half of that 2005 season was the highlight for me, just that stretch of time when we were really playing well," Lane said. "At the beginning of the year, we were not very good, but we stuck together as a team. Just being a part of that, seeing how each guy was doing his part, how far we rode that … that was fun."
It seems so long ago now. Lane was a different player then -- a position player. Time has passed. He is older, more appreciative of where he's been and what he's doing now. Lane is divorced with a daughter. Last month, he became engaged, right before he signed with San Diego.
Things are lining up pretty well for Lane at 36. Getting a promotion to the big leagues would add nice chapter to a baseball life that has been anything but mundane.
"There's been times when it's been very hard and very frustrating," Lane said. "I've spent so much time away from the big leagues now, time where I could have been helping a team. I've had ups and downs, on and off the field. But the one thing that's stayed the same is my love for the game."
When will Lane know it's time to stop playing?
"I'm still getting results, and I think if I wasn't getting them and feeling like I couldn't do this, then I could walk away and start the next chapter of my life," Lane said. "But as long as I'm having success, I'm going to keep doing it."