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Nationals pitchers a club of Tommy John surgery success stories

February 26, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Something caught my eye as I looked at the nameplates of the lockers, one after another, in the corner of the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse.

Stephen Strasburg. Patrick Corbin. Joe Ross. Erick Fedde. Sean Dolittle. Trevor Rosenthal.

Save for Dolittle, all of these pitchers, side by side, locker by locker, are connected by the transplanted tendon tissue that saved their careers.

The Tommy John corner.

“I hadn’t noticed that,” said Strasburg, whose Tommy John surgery is more notorious than most, in large part because of the his controversial recovery rather than the actual operation itself. “That’s unique. But so many guys have had it in this organization.”

Yes, they have. The pitchers aren’t the only ones in the room who have had the procedure an operation that takes a healthy tendon from another part of the body or from a donor to replace an arm’s torn ulnar collateral ligament inside the elbow.

On the other side of the room, you have Sammy Solis (2012 surgery), Aaron Barrett (who just pitched in Washington’s first exhibition game Saturday night in a major league game for the first time since 2015, after breaking his right elbow during rehabilitation) and Koda Glover, who had the surgery in college but recently was diagnosed with a forearm strain after leaving a game Sunday with elbow tightness.

But the names on the lockers in the pitchers’ corner read like the sign-in sheet at an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

For a moment, I thought the list of medical miracles jumped across the washroom entrance to include the locker of newcomer Anibal Sanchez. A 2014 Sports Illustrated story named the Venezuelan-born pitcher as one of the game’s biggest beneficiaries of the operation.

But Sanchez, who had an operation on his elbow in 2003, said the article got it wrong his procedure was for a nerve problem, not Tommy John surgery.

No one wants to be in this club that doesn’t have to be.

Still, the days when a torn ulnar collateral ligament was a career-ender are fading faster than ever, and there are few clubhouses where that is more evident than here in the Nationals locker room.

Washington is an organization that believes in the success of the surgery, so much so that they invested nearly $150 million in two free agent pitchers and members of the Tommy John club, starter Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million) and reliever Trevor Rosenthal (possibly up to $8 million this year with options for next season).

Sitting side by side, the Nationals pitchers in this medical club don’t compare scars or talk a lot about their surgeries the further away the operation and the more success a player has, the less it weighs on the mind.

“I don’t really think about it anymore,” said Corbin, 29, who had the surgery in 2014 and has gone 36-38 over 600 innings since. “The elbow feels good. It’s the new normal for me. But it seems like a lot of pitchers have had it. One good thing is you can come back strong.”

But players who have been through the injury and recovered are willing to talk about the process with someone facing the procedure.

“The year I had it we had Daniel Hudson on the team (Arizona Diamondbacks), who was going through his second one in a row. I talked with him, and other guys on the team who had had it. I think we had five guys on the team that year who had it. I was able to talk to them and our training staff there to try to figure out the best way to get back.”

His repaired elbow isn’t something he dwells on when he’s on the mound now, Corbin said.

“It’s normal now,” he said. “I didn’t really notice it here. It is something you don’t wish on anyone. It wasn’t fun to be out for 16 months and not be able to go out there and compete. It takes some time to have that trust and conviction you had before. It’s a (club) you don’t wish it on anyone.”

Rosenthal, 28, is the newest member of the club.

The former St. Louis Cardinals reliever had the operation in 2017. He had been one of the game’s most dominant relievers, with 93 saves over 2014 and 2015.

He is absolutely giddy about his comeback in Washington.

“It feels like I never had surgery,” Rosenthal said. “It is kind of weird in that way. It almost feels like I went back in time three or four years, the way my arms feels.”

Rosenthal has felt so good that he opened spring training here throwing 100 mph in workouts, and manager Dave Martinez had to tell him to dial it back a little.

Rosenthal talks more about the procedure than others.

“I’ve talked to these guys about it, being on a new team and all, with the coaches, and supporting staff,” he said. “They are interested in how I am feeling and what I did in recovery.

“It’s good to talk about it,” Rosenthal said. “It is unusual to have all of us here together like this.”

There have been high-profile pitchers who went on to great success after the surgery John Smoltz had it in 2000 and came back as a star reliever before returning to starting pitching, and of course the namesake of the operation, Tommy John himself. But Strasburg has been the face of the surgery in the 21st century, thanks to the rampant second-guessing of the Nationals’ strict recovery protocols (the same protocols they followed the year before with Jordan Zimmermann) that shut down Strasburg after 160 innings in the 2012 season.

Since his 2010 operation, Strasburg, 30, has posted a record of 88-48 over 1,137 innings. He has talked about the surgery and the recovery with some of the younger Nationals who had the operation.

“They’ve talked about it a little bit,” Strasburg said. “If somebody has to have it, it is typical for this organization, with so many guys who have had it, to share your experience, give them a little piece of mind.

“I don’t think about it too much,” he said. “I have kind of gotten used to the way it is going to be. I try to look ahead and focus on what I’ve got going that day. I had some guys who reached out to me before the surgery, some outstanding individuals who talked to about it. It had no real bearing on their careers. I thought that was cool.”

“When guys come to the realization they are going to go under the knife, they don’t really know if they’ll be able to ever throw the ball the way they used to,” Strasburg said. “There is that kind of a question there. You don’t really know how it is going to play out.”

If you’re lucky, you join the growing list of Tommy John club members rehabilitated, recovered and sharing rewarding results for whom the surgery is just a biographical footnite, not the end of the story.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.