ST. PETERSBURG -- Wearing his No. 47 jersey and khaki shorts, Brandon Gomes spent a few hours of his Saturday doing the kind of work not often associated with Major League pitchers. He dug ditches, pushed around wheelbarrows full of dirt and raked mulch just outside the shadow of Tropicana Field.
Gomes and right-hander Alex Cobb were taking part in the Tampa Bay Rays Employee Community Outreach Team's work with the Edible Peace Patch Project, installing a garden at Campbell Park Elementary School with about a dozen Rays staff members and more than 100 local volunteers throughout the day.
It was hardly glamorous work, but Gomes was happy to do it, especially considering how he felt this time last offseason.
"Anything you can do to help out is a great idea, and this is so beneficial for the kids," Gomes said. "It'll be my workout for today."
After a tremendous rookie season in which he posted a 2.92 ERA in 40 big league appearances, Gomes underwent back surgery to fix a disc in November 2011, something that would wind up holding him back throughout his 2012 campaign.
He spent most of last winter rehabbing from surgery and couldn't even throw when Spring Training began. When he worked his way back, he couldn't recapture the same form that made him so effective in his rookie year. While his Triple-A Durham numbers were strong -- a 3.09 ERA, 5-4 record, nine saves and 73 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings -- he pitched to a 5.09 ERA in only 15 appearances in the Majors during the 2012 season.
Despite the disappointing numbers, Rays manager Joe Maddon praised the 28-year-old reliever for being at the stage in his development where he knew he could be successful in the Majors, and Gomes agreed with that "100 percent." Even when he didn't feel right physically or mechanically, he gained confidence from the fact that he could still record outs.
"I never really felt like I did in 2011," Gomes said. "I felt really good in September. I felt good physically, finally. I felt like everything was starting to click mechanically. Probably about a year out, so right around Thanksgiving , I started to feel like I didn't have surgery. I felt completely 100 percent. It's been good. I'm really excited to get into this season.
"It was much different, because this year I could start with the strength-and-conditioning training right away. And last year, it was just rehabbing to get healthy enough to be able to throw a baseball. So it's been completely different, where I know I've been healthy for a year now, so that I can actually focus on the pitching aspect and the minor details rather than trying to get healthy to be able to go out and compete."
Indeed, this has been a more normal offseason for Gomes and his wife, Blair, who joined him Saturday to shovel dirt and work on the school's garden. They've traveled around the country to weddings for friends and family and spent the last month before Spring Training relaxing in Tampa. At the same time, Gomes has been working out five days a week, splitting time between Tropicana Field and the University of Tampa.
But there could be another obstacle standing between Gomes and a spot in the Rays' Opening Day bullpen this year.
If the season began today, Gomes would almost certainly be in the big league bullpen alongside closer Fernando Rodney, setup men Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, left-hander Cesar Ramos, right-hander Roberto Hernandez (if he doesn't make the starting rotation) and right-hander Dane De La Rosa.
But Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has said he's looking for "one or two more relievers." If they pick up one more bullpen arm, Gomes would still figure to make the Opening Day roster. If they pick up two more and Hernandez begins the season in the bullpen, Gomes might be sent back to Durham as one of the odd men out.
That's not a concern for him at this point, however. Instead, Gomes is simply focused on jumping out to the kind of head start he couldn't get a year ago.
"I've always tried to keep a focus on what I'm going to do to get better and not really worry about who we bring in or anything like that. If I take care of myself and do my job, it'll play itself out the way it should," Gomes said. "I think it's the easiest way to go about things and the least amount of stress to put on yourself. Just do as well as you can, and everything will fall into place."