VIERA, Fla. -- Craig Stammen first noticed the pain in his right elbow sometime last spring, back when he was still pitching in minor-league camp, with little reason to believe he'd wind up throwing more innings for the Nationals than anyone not named John Lannan.
At first, it was just some discomfort, especially on the days after he pitched. But over the course of weeks and months, it developed into a constant throbbing, to the point where Stammen knew this was more than typical aches and pains.
"I knew something was going on," he said. "But I knew this was my opportunity to make the team. So I wasn't going to say anything."
So the young right-hander kept on pitching. By the time August came to a close, he had made 19 starts with the Nationals, thrown 105 2/3 innings, beaten the Yankees in the Bronx, tossed a complete game against the Astros and racked up more big-league experience anyone ever expected from a guy who five months earlier wasn't on anyone's radar screen.
And then the pain became too much to bear anymore, so Stammen informed his coaches and his trainers the extent of the pain. Worried the injury could be something serious, maybe even a torn ligament, the rookie was relieved to learn it was merely the product of some bone chips, easily removed during a minor surgical procedure. His season was over a month too soon, but his career wasn't going to be sidetracked.
"I got lucky," he said. "I was probably a little bit bone-headed. But in the end, would I do it all over again? Yeah, probably."
The issue of ballplayers hiding injuries from their coaches and trainers is always a controversial subject, and more often than not team officials come down hard on players who think they can gut it out when they may only be making matters worse.
But Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty understood why Stammen was so reluctant to tell anyone. He had been there before.
"Oh, sure. I pitched my last four years with the A's, my shoulder was killing me," McCatty said. "So I understand. As pitchers, you go out there and you never feel completely good. You always have some sort of ache, but you battle through it. He probably said, 'Hey, this is my opportunity. I'm not saying anything.'"
Because the injury proved not to be serious, Stammen finds himself 100 percent healthy today and in prime position to win a spot in Washington's Opening Day rotation. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is one of at least a half-dozen guys competing for three available jobs, but his surprising performance last season may give him a slight leg up on others in the mix.
A previously unheralded 12th round pick in the 2005 draft (one round behind Lannan) out of the University of Dayton, Stammen became one of the Nationals' rotation mainstays last season. His 4-7 record and 5.11 ERA were hardly dazzling, but he had more than his share of moments and for the most part didn't look fazed pitching in the big leagues for the better part of four months.
Not much fazes Stammen, who holds a practical outlook on just about everything in life.
"[The transition from the minors to the majors] was just like anything else," he said. "Like when you're going through math classes. You go to algebra, you go to calculus, it's new and it's very difficult. But you're ready for it. That's the next progression. And that's kind of how I felt."
Stammen's opportunity might never have come if not for a lucky break late last spring. Needing to rearrange their rotation order to better line up for the start of the season, the Nats asked McCatty to pick a spot-starter from minor-league camp to pitch against the Tigers in Lakeland. McCatty, who had first started working with Stammen at Class AAA Columbus in 2007, immediately selected the young sinkerballer.
"I love the kid," the coach told his bosses. "He's a competitor. I think you guys ought to give him a chance."
Facing Detroit's "A" lineup, Stammen proceeded to allow one run and one hit in four superb innings. At one point, he retired 10 straight batters, striking out Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson in succession.
Stammen was immediately sent back to minor-league camp to prepare for the Class AAA season, but he left an impression on the big-league coaching and front office staffs, one that would pay off a couple of months later.
"I knew it mattered, and it was a big stepping stone for me," he said. "It also made me realize I was good enough to compete at that level."
By late-May, Stammen was a fixture in Washington's rotation. And by late-August, even though his season was cut short by the elbow injury, he had made his case for inclusion on the 2010 roster.
So now Stammen finds himself in a most-unusual position. He's already pitched more than 100 innings in the big leagues, yet he's currently attending his first big-league spring training. "I kind of did things backwards," he said.
The path he took may have been a bit circuitous, but Stammen wouldn't have had it any other way. And the Nats are thankful this previously unknown right-hander from Ohio managed to find his way into their plans.