PHOENIX (AP) -Justin Duchscherer believes he earned a reputation for being an injury-prone pitcher six years ago because of something that had nothing to do with baseball.
The winter before the 2002 season, he was driving along a busy Dallas freeway at 65 mph when someone suddenly crossed several lanes at once and cut him off. Duchscherer collided with the car, then crashed into the guard rail. He wasn't wearing a seat belt, saying now it was ``stupid,'' but he was in a bulky jacket that made the belt feel too snug.
His knee hit the dash, his body shifted forward and he slammed his head into the windshield and received a large goose egg. He was traded from Texas to the Oakland Athletics a few months later and spent that spring pitching with back pain and popping Vicodin before taking the mound.
Duchscherer didn't feel right all year in '02, going on and off the disabled list at Triple-A Sacramento - for three months total - and pitching just 14 times for the A's in his first year with the franchise.
he longtime setup man is ready to be a full-time major league starter for the first time.
``I'm so excited,'' Duchscherer said, sitting at his locker following a recent spring training workout. ``I've missed it the last four years. I always wanted to act like I liked my job, but I didn't enjoy having to be ready every day and putting the grind on my body. Pitching every five days, you have such a better routine.''
After the car accident, it wasn't until a couple of days later at the gym when he tried to pick up a weight and his back wouldn't allow it. The doctor's diagnosis: two bulging discs. It was so bad his wife had to help him put on his shoes.
``That's in the past,'' said Billy Owens, Oakland's director of player personnel. ``He's a guy who's always been intriguing to us as a starting pitcher.''
Second-year Athletics skipper Bob Geren was Duchscherer's manager that 2002 season in Sacramento and the pitcher's first minor league manager in the Red Sox organization in 1996 at Fort Myers, Fla.
``The frustrating part was I didn't have baseball issues,'' Duchscherer said. ``I got a reputation for being hurt. It cost me.''
Yet his Oakland bosses aren't so sure it really set him back that much. All this time later and at 30 years old, Duchscherer will get his first chance to be a regular in the rotation.
p better as a starter for the A's. And it felt like a godsend.
``The light went off and I was like, 'Sweet, I might get to start,''' Duchscherer said. ``It's been a relief to come to the park with a little different attitude. I want to prove to them I can do this. People say they don't know if I can hold up for 200 innings. I've done it before. People are wondering if I can face the same lineup three times. I don't have the best stuff in the world but I locate well and have four different pitches.''
He got all of three chances in 2003 and none since then. That season, he was named Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year with a 14-2 record and 3.25 ERA in 23 starts. He then made a memorable major league debut Sept. 9, the same day his wife delivered their first child, son Evan, in New Jersey. He pitched a career-best seven scoreless innings with six strikeouts against the Angels in Oakland, then hopped on a cross-country flight to meet his baby boy.
It's been a whirlwind of relief appearances and injury frustrations since then - from the high of being named to his first All-Star game in 2005 to sitting out most of last season before having hip surgery.
Geren has seen Duchscherer perform at all levels, and their history together helps the manager know he can handle a greater role. Because of the hip surgery, the A's are closely monitoring Duchscherer's conditioning this spring though his arm is fine.
``I have a lot of confidence in him,'' Geren said. ``I've seen him right out of high school and seen him grow up in the game. I've seen him turn from a high school kid into a man. When he was an All-Star in '05, I was so happy for him. I spent a lot of time with him when I was bullpen coach. I've seen him pitch successfully as a starter and reliever.''
Duchscherer hasn't started a big league game since '03. He got two more chances that year after his debut, lasting only 3 1-3 innings at Texas on Sept. 14 and getting pulled after four innings of a home game Sept. 20 against Seattle.
Duchscherer missed the final 125 games last year, going 3-3 with a 4.96 ERA and two blown saves in 17 outings before being sidelined in May with a strained right hip. He had the operation July 11 to fix a microfracture that had worn down cartilage and caused two bones to rub on each other. He spent two months on crutches.
``Now he's in a situation where he can go back to his grass roots and start,'' Owens said. ``He has the chance to establish himself as a starter for the first time in three years. Justin's been a very, very good major league reliever for us. He's been open to being a starter. Why not?''

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