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03/19/12 6:45 PM ET
Zavada unwilling to accept less than best
Journey back to The Show one of courage, determination
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A non-roster reliever trying to pitch his way onto the Reds' roster out of camp, left-hander Clay Zavada knows he can't have more outings like he had on Sunday against the D-backs. That's partially why Zavada was still kicking himself quite a bit on Monday. "I'm disappointed," said Zavada, who gave up six runs (four earned), three hits and three walks in one-third of an inning against Arizona. "I wanted to pitch well against the Diamondbacks and I did not. I've got to own that. That game is on me. I lost it for our team against my old team." Zavada, 27, has had much bigger roadblocks and setbacks during a professional career that has zigged and zagged away from anything resembling a straight path to the Majors. A 30th-round Draft pick by the D-backs in 2006, Zavada was out of baseball within a year. In December 2006, his father Clarence, known as "Big Clay," died of a heart attack and Zavada became charged with taking care of the family and a farm in his hometown of Streator, Ill. He also decided to attend Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. "My dad enjoyed watching me. When he passed away, I had promised him I'd graduate college, which I did," said Zavada, who earned his degree in business administration in the spring of 2008.
The itch for baseball returned that summer, and Zavada hitched up with an independent team in southern Illinois and posted a 1.72 ERA in 12 games. The D-backs came calling for a second time and re-signed him. He finished the year in Class A South Bend and posted a 0.51 ERA in 24 games with five walks and 54 strikeouts. "I decided to try baseball again not knowing what it would bring. Well, it bought me a few years now and I'm still playing," Zavada said. By May of the following year, Zavada was pitching in the Majors. With Arizona in 2009, he was 3-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 49 games. He also became known for his Rollie Fingers' style handlebar mustache, which earned him the Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year. In 2010, a blown out left elbow required Tommy John surgery and almost another year of out of baseball. Zavada was with Double-A Mobile for the entire 2011 season and had a 3.43 ERA over 44 appearances. He was not retained by the D-backs, and the Reds signed him to a Minor League contract in January with an invite to big league camp. Wearing No. 82, Zavada came in with an outside shot to crack the Reds' bullpen, but is still alive after the first round of cuts on Sunday morning. His competitive fire still burns very hot. "Last year, I didn't have the opportunity to fight for a job because of my surgery," Zavada said. "This year, I have a fighting chance, which feels good. If you can't fight, they'll bury you. You have to scratch and claw every day. That's how I've always worked -- scratching, clawing and fighting every day. "I don't have the best stuff, but you have to be a savage. It's a ruthless game so you have to be ruthless -- not as a person but out on the mound doing your work. You have to be an absolute, ruthless savage. Those guys in the box want to tear your head off." Zavada found a familiar face in Reds pitching coach Bryan Price, who was Arizona's pitching coach during Zavada's first big league camp in 2009. Price left the D-backs before Zavada's debut but is a Phoenix-area resident and caught plenty of his games on television. "He threw well. He had the right aggressive attitude out of the bullpen," Price said. "He's not throwing the ball right now as he did with Arizona with the same delivery and same aggressive strikes he was throwing there. We hope to get back to that place sooner than later." Zavada has a 10.80 ERA in his five games, which is inflated from Sunday's performance. Three of his previous four outings had been scoreless. He allowed two runs, a hit and two walks vs. Oakland on March 10. Price is clear that Zavada has some improvements to make before he can be considered for a bullpen spot. "His tempo is a lot slower," Price said. "He's not using his legs as much. His velocity is down a bit. The surgery should not affect his velocity at all." Zavada, who said he was courted by eight teams over the winter before signing with the Reds, still likes the opportunity presented to him by Cincinnati. But he also knows he has to step it up and have clean outings. "You have to have eight of 10 good outings, with only two bad ones out of 10 the way I look at it," Zavada said. "And when I say bad, it's one run. You give up a run, you feel like the biggest loser in the locker room. I take it personal when I can't get my job done because these guys all have my back. "I had theirs but yesterday, I didn't do my job. It hurts because you know everybody is pulling for everybody, even the guys I compete with here -- like Ron [Mahay] and [Clayton] Tanner. They're great guys. I root for them. I want them to do well. If they do well, I've got to do better. That's the way it is."