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01/28/11 3:39 PM EST

Zavada on the comeback trail with D-backs

Lefty missed most of '10 after having Tommy John surgery in May

PHOENIX -- Clay Zavada knew that something was wrong.

There simply had to be a reason he couldn't hit his spots, not even the one on the inside corner to righties. That was one he could usually hit no matter what.

The struggles started during Spring Training in 2010 and after Zavada was one of the final cuts, he went down to Triple-A Reno and was simply awful.

In five appearances, he allowed six hits in three innings and had an ERA of 30.00 thanks in large part to a whopping 10 walks. It seemed when the ball left his hand he had absolutely no idea where it was going.

"It was failure after failure after failure," he said. "Bad outing after bad outing. It just broke me down mentally."

There was some thought at the time that maybe he was not reacting well to not making the big league team after the magical year he had for the D-backs in 2009.

"Some people thought it was a head problem, but I never really believed that," Zavada said. "I didn't know what it was, but I didn't think it was that. I've never pitched like that in my life."

Tests eventually showed a torn ligament in his left elbow and he underwent Tommy John surgery in May. While his season was over and his future uncertain, at least he now knew why his velocity had been down, why his control was so bad. He no longer worried whether he was going scooters.

"Before I knew what it was, I was ready to check myself into the loony bin," Zavada said. "They say with a torn ligament you lose your velocity and control. I saw both of those. I was trying to battle that all spring. But I felt normal. I mean it hurt, but I've been pitching in pain my whole life."

After spending much of the summer rehabbing the elbow in Tucson, Ariz., Zavada spent the offseason on his farm in Streator, Ill.

In November, the D-backs took him off their 40-man roster and he was re-signed in January to a Minor League deal.

"It's hard to find lefty relievers with a little funkiness to them," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said, referring to Zavada's arm angle. "He's had some health issues, but I like guys with angle, and he's got a really good changeup. We'll see. This guy had some success when he was healthy. The key thing for any lefty who has funkiness is to throw strikes. A guy like Zavada, if he could command his fastball -- regardless of if it's 84 or 85 [mph] -- with a changeup he can throw for strikes, he'll be effective."

Zavada has been playing catch regularly at Chase Field recently and expects to step on the mound for the first time for a bullpen session Monday.

"I just hope everything goes well," Zavada said. "Sure, the elbow is in the back of my mind, but I'm going to give it my all."

Zavada became a fan favorite in 2009, not just for his performance on the mound by compiling a 3.35 ERA in 49 games, but for the unlikely journey he took to get to the big leagues. Included in his trip was a hiatus from the game in 2007 following the death of his father.

When he returned to baseball in 2008, he pitched in the independent Frontier League before being re-signed by the D-backs. He spent the rest of '08 at Class A South Bend and began '09 at Double-A Mobile before finally getting a call to the big leagues.

"I came back to baseball for a reason and that was to have fun," Zavada said. "And somehow that took me to the big leagues. You make it, and then all of a sudden, it's like you get hit in the face with a scoop shovel. Now I just have to rebuild it. It's a good fit in Arizona, they are rebuilding and I'm rebuilding. They're my team, they gave me my chance."

Zavada is not sure what the timeframe is for his return to game action because recovery time varies from player to player, and he knows that a return trip to the big leagues is by no means a sure thing.

Yet, he still believes that he will find a way back, and if he doesn't, well, that doesn't scare him.

"All you need is a chip and a chair -- that's what poker players say at least," Zavada said with a laugh. "The only reason I got to the big leagues in the first place is because I had fun and worked hard, and that's what I'm going to keep doing. I've had a real job before and I'm not afraid if I have to go back."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @dbackswriter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.