PEORIA, Ariz. — Chad Cordero got nervous every time he pitched in the majors. When he first faced Sammy Sosa a decade ago as a precocious rookie reliever for the Montreal Expos, he had to step off the rubber to stop his legs from shaking.
The butterflies reconvened in his stomach when he stepped onto a Cactus League mound in a red Los Angeles Angels uniform — and promptly gave up a homer to the first major league batter he had faced in two years.
Brendan Ryan’s trot around the bases still couldn’t ruin the moment for Cordero, the former Washington closer who’s trying to restart his once-promising career.
“I know everything is going to come back,” Cordero said. “My arm felt great, like I had good action on it. Just getting that first one out of the way and realizing that I can do it again, that’s what means the most to me. I’m not even worried about results right now. I’m just so grateful to be out there and pitching again.”
After barely throwing in the last half-decade while he dealt with serious arm injuries and his infant daughter’s death, Cordero’s comeback continued with one inning against Seattle on Monday. He fought off the knots in his stomach and got three comfortable outs after the homer, encouraging the Angels officials wondering whether the former All-Star who has appeared in 15 major league games since 2007 can make one of their minor league rosters.
“He’s an interesting guy,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “The life on his ball was terrific, and I think that’s the first step. The ball was coming out well, and he has good command when he’s on.”
Cordero led the majors in saves in 2005 as the Nationals’ pugnacious young closer, but he’s dressing in the minor leaguers’ locker room at the Angels’ spring training complex in Tempe, several fields away from the lockers occupied by Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver and Josh Hamilton.
The humbling surroundings are just fine with Cordero, whose weight loss is the most visible sign of his renewed commitment. The former Cal State Fullerton star is down about 50 pounds from his heaviest playing days.
“When I came into minor league camp for the first day and put on the pants and the jersey again, I realized just how much baseball means to me,” said Cordero, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif. “Hopefully I can keep playing this for a little while longer. I’m still young. I’m not 31 until this March. I missed it so much. Even though I was away for two years, I still kept track of all the games, still went to Angel games with my family.
“Some guys, when they step away, they don’t even watch games anymore. But for me, it helped me want to get back and want to play again.”
Nats fans might not recognize Cordero, except for his distinctively flat-brimmed cap. He has no discernible belly now, and he’s wearing his uniform pants up at the knees to expose his socks — another symbol of his fresh start.
Scioscia noticed when they first crossed paths in Tempe this month.
“I did kind of a double-take, because he’s down 40 pounds,” Scioscia said. “But once he got on the mound, you could tell it was him. He’s got the same delivery.”
The former first-round pick broke into the majors in Montreal, but didn’t break out until the Expos moved to Washington. He picked up 47 saves in his first full big-league season, also the Nationals’ debut year.
The 23-year-old was the youngest pitcher in big-league history to get 40 saves, and he added 64 more in the next two seasons. But his arm fell apart in 2008, and Cordero eventually needed season-ending surgery after developing a torn side muscle, torn labrum and torn biceps.
After the Nationals unceremoniously released him, he got a minor-league deal with Seattle for 2009, but didn’t get healthy enough to make it back to the majors until June 2010 — and he lasted just nine games with the Mariners.
But baseball faded into the background when Cordero’s 11-week-old daughter, Tehya, died of sudden infant death syndrome in December 2010. Cordero tried to keep playing while he dealt with the grief. He signed with Toronto, but couldn’t stick. He played briefly in an independent league in Minnesota, but began contemplating life after baseball.
“I tried to come back way too quick,” Cordero said. “My arm wasn’t into it. My head wasn’t into it. After a few weeks in indie ball, I doubted myself. I wasn’t ready.”
When his wife, Jamie, gave birth to their son, Cooper, in January 2012, he decided he was ready for another try. The couple went on a Weight Watchers program, and Cordero coached a high school baseball team with a former Fullerton teammate.
He even traveled to Japan for several weeks last fall to work with Kazu Tomooka, the Nationals’ former strength and conditioning coach.
“I think at my heaviest in D.C., I was 235 (pounds), and now I’m 188,” he said. “I was big, so I knew if I was going to make a comeback, I was going to have to be in the best shape I could possibly be, and that meant cutting back on what I was eating.”
Although his velocity was a bit slow in returning, Cordero noticed his pitches jumped when he faced batters. When he pitched in a Fullerton alumni game Feb. 9, agent Larry Reynolds recorded him with a phone camera and showed it to Angels manager Jerry Dipoto, who swiftly decided Cordero deserved a shot.
Cordero should get a few more chances to pitch to major leaguers in spring training, and he’s hoping to land a spot at Class AAA Salt Lake this season. A return to Angel Stadium as a player would be particularly sweet, since he’s been attending games there during his baseball hiatus — but after his long wait, Cordero isn’t rushing anything.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to come back up there,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever lose that love for baseball again.”