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Walls uses his head to climb over rehabilitation

July 28, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

In a different time and a different place, Sam Walls would be participating in on-the-job training.

But for now, Walls isn't exactly on the job yet, nor is he training.

Instead, the Jefferson High School graduate is working to get to the point where he is working and training regularly to be the closer for the Philadelphia Phillies. That will come in 2008, after he has fully recovered from season-ending shoulder surgery.

Until then, Walls is settled into doing the next best thing to working while he learns. He watches and listens to create an image of the kind of pitcher he'd like to become.

It is a tedious process, but one that helps gives his rehabilitation a purpose.

"One of the things that has helped me is that I have become a student of the game," Walls said via telephone from Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies' spring training site. "I study the guys who resemble how I pitch. They aren't guys who are necessarily stars, but guys who are like me and look like the way I pitch."

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Be it a plan or a diversionary tactic, it is the system Walls is using to get back on his game, a game that showed so much promise that the Phillies made him their 10th-round selection in the 2006 draft after his junior year at North Carolina State.

Walls made almost an instant impression as an individual of the future for the Phillies, both as a player and as a person. Philadelphia seemed to have plans for Walls to be the pitcher, leader and role model the team and the sport needs.

The Phillies tapped Walls' student side early, bringing him in during the offseason to attend the team's leadership seminar.

"There were about 11 or 12 of us from the Phillies' minor league teams," Walls said. "They went over on how we should handle different things that happen to players and how to do things the Phillie way. Most of the guys who were there were their top picks and with all the talent that is in the system, it was an honor to be there."

Walls earned the honor after being drafted. He was placed with Batavia, Philadelphia's half-season Single-A affiliate in the New York-Penn League. He pitched well, going 1-2 with four saves in 19 games, including two starts, while carrying a 2.67 ERA. He struck out 26 and walked just six in 30 innings.

"When I was drafted, they told me they wanted me to be a closer," Walls said. "I got the two starts because they wanted me to stretch out and get more innings.

"My strength is that I throw two pitches - a fastball and a cut fastball - with control. That was my strong point. That's what they want at the end of the game a guy who can come in with control to end it quickly."

Although he wasn't a highly heralded selection, Walls made a quick impression. One Phillies fan blog listed him as "one player in the system to make it to the majors fastest I'd probably choose Walls ... there's something to be said for that."

But while all was going well, something was wrong with Walls.

"Last year, I knew I was hurt, but I didn't know to what extent it was," he said. "There were times I had my velocity, and then the next time out, I didn't. It would affect me for the next three or four outings. It wouldn't affect my stuff, but my velocity was down."

He continued to pitch through the problem while looking for a remedy. Finally, the problem received a name.

Walls had a slap lesion - a weakness in the shoulder muscle called the labrum. The lesion isn't a tear, which would have been much more serious, but it causes the shoulder area to fall out of alignment. The choices for repair were either a long rehabilitation or surgery.

The surgery required a suture, or stitch, to be put in the front of the labrum to give it a chance to realign.

"I decided to take care of it with surgery," Walls said. "I had it done in March and now I'm rehabilitating it. They said I could be pitching in seven or eight months, but it could be as long as 12 to 18."

Walls knew with his decision, he would miss the 2007 season. There was no pitching or competition.

So, he turned to studying to pass the time while trying to improve. He picked three pitchers to watch and gain pointers from - Pittsburgh's Shawn Chacon, Philadelphia's Tom Gordon and the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera - because of similarities in style and the pitches they threw.

"I looked at Chacon because of the way he worked hitters and the way he spots his pitches without above-average stuff," Walls said. "I looked to Gordon because of the way he changed to help his career and adapted by adding a cutter as he got older and moved from a starter to a closer. And I looked at Rivera because of his longevity and the way he goes in there and approaches his work as a closer."

Like most young people, Walls had trouble studying when everyone around him was playing. He is on the sidelines and practice fields in Clearwater, rehabilitating while others are in games and improving. But even sitting and watching has its benefits.

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