Two pitchers fight for chance to step on a major league mound
Daniel Bard and Jonny Venters are trying to work their way back with the Pirates and Rays, respectively.
Some players love baseball so much, they can’t let go.
They have heart-wrenching stories, such as Daniel Bard’s quest to regain what he’s lost the last four years — the ability to throw strikes. When he popped up in Fort Myers, Fla., last week with the Pirates, throwing sidearm but effective again, Red Sox manager John Farrell, Bard’s former pitching coach, was over-the-top happy for him.
While Bard was once among the best setup men in the American League, Jonny Venters was his equal in the National League setting up for Craig Kimbrel with the Braves.
Venters, a lefthander, was 97-98 miles per hour with a great curveball. Bard was 97-98 with a great slider.
Bard lost his ability to throw strikes. Venters, who turns 31 on Sunday, lost his elbow, so to speak. He’s currently in Tampa Bay’s camp rehabbing from his third Tommy John surgery. It’s bad enough to come back from one.
According to many baseball people, and Venters himself, only Jason Isringhausen has been able to make it back from three.
Venters just wants one more chance to step on a major league mound and let loose.
“I feel good,” said Venters last week. “I’m pleased with how I feel physically. I’m getting off the mound, getting excited. Hopefully [the elbow] responds. I couldn’t be happier with where I am. Very grateful to be here and we’ll see where I am.”
Venters had his first surgery in his first season of pro ball in 2005. He had his second in 2013 and third in September of 2014.
“My first [ligament transplant] lasted eight years,” Venters said. “Before my second one, it was iffy to throw. I could still throw but I just got to the point where I couldn’t get anybody out and I was hurting and the doctor told me I needed it. The third one was obvious.”
Like Bard — who went from the Red Sox to the Cubs, the Rangers, back to the Cubs, and now the Pirates — Venters went through grueling rehabs.
“I’ve had my ups and downs,” he said. “Trying to stay as even-keeled as possible, but it wears on you mentally going through the process, especially three times. It’s part of the game. It is what it is. I love baseball and I made the decision that I was going to give it every chance to come back because I don’t want to have any regrets.”
Much in the way Bard’s decline was sudden and mostly unexplainable (though he did have surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome), Venters can’t explain why he’s had to have his elbow ligament replaced three times.
“I think it was one of those things that was going to happen,” Venters said. “It was different, the elbow couldn’t handle the stress. Doctors were as surprised as I was. We assumed the second one would work. Maybe I threw a little too hard. Maybe I rushed it. I didn’t really ever think it would happen again.”
Each procedure has resulted in a longer rehab. If Venters feels the slightest soreness, he shuts it down for a while. He doesn’t push anything.
“I’ve prepared myself mentally if I can’t make it back, but deep down I think I’ll get back to pitching. Whether I can get anybody out or how good my stuff will be, I have no idea. But I feel I’ll be able to get out there and give it a shot,” he said.
Venters said his velocity is back up to 97-98.
“I’m surprised. I feel it’s coming out as good as it ever had,” he said.
But there are dangers to having multiple surgeries on the same arm.
“I think the more surgeries, the more holes they have to drill in the bone and the bone can become more fragile and more susceptible to fractures,” Venters said. “You get more scarring. It can be tougher. You have to take more time and let it all heal.”
The Rays’ plan is to have Venters pitch to batters in about six weeks and maybe be ready to pitch in a game by June.
Both Bard and Venters signed with their new teams because of their reputations for resurrecting injured pitchers. Venters also lives in Orlando, so the Rays were a convenient option, and the team’s ever-changing bullpen afforded him opportunity.
He keeps looking back on what might have contributed to his plight.
“I looked at mechanical stuff and I couldn’t find anything that stuck,” Venters said. “Maybe incorporate my legs more. When I was young I threw a lot and I threw everything hard all of the time. I’m older now, I need to tone it down. The way I throw it’s tough on the elbow. My delivery is pretty much the same. I made some minor adjustments to see if it could help.”
He looks at Kimbrel and he’s grateful his ex-teammate has avoided what he’s had to endure.
“I think a lot of it is genetics and how your body is put together,” Venters said. “Craig’s got the perfect delivery with his frame. I don’t see him ever having problems. The way his arm works is special. He hasn’t been hurt since high school.”
There are several stories about perseverance throughout major league camps. The Red Sox have two of them.
Allen Craig, once among the more feared hitters in the NL, has spent the last two years trying to find his stroke. Carlos Marmol, once an All-Star reliever with the Cubs, is fighting to regain that form. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 10, 2014.
Phillies slugger and former NL MVP Ryan Howard has tried to get back to form, but the Achilles’ tear he suffered in the 2011 playoffs changed him forever.
Former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia, who went through alcohol rehab last fall, is fighting to stay in the majors.
Former AL MVP Justin Morneau is rehabbing from elbow surgery and wants to prove he can be dominant again.
Dan Uggla, once a 30-homer second baseman, has been through all sorts of medical issues and is battling to stay in baseball.
They fight for one more chance.
Cuba trip hits home for Perez
When Eduardo Perez returns to Havana this week for ESPN’s broadcast of the exhibition between the Rays and the Cuban national team, it will be an emotional day. He hasn’t been to Cuba in 25 years, when he first met many relatives.
“I haven’t seen them since 1991,” said Perez, the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez and a big leaguer for 13 seasons. “They are on my dad’s side. I’m obviously going there to do my job, but it’s going to be great for me and for them. I just hope the experience begins to open up more avenues for them.
“It’s a tough way of life. There are so many things that we take for granted that they don’t have access to. Simple things like alkaline batteries, Tylenol, prescription glasses, things that are difficult for them to get their hands on. If I can bring some things to them that can just help them in their day-to-day life, I’ll feel like I’m doing something positive for them. It’s quite an eye-opener as to the things we take for granted where we live and the things they are so grateful for when they receive them.
“I know the last time I was there was when I had just signed with the Angels in 1991, and my dad always instilled in me that I needed to take care of my family so I went to Cuba and I bought a few things for everybody just to try to make their life easier. It’s been 25 years and I’m going to see cousins and aunts that I haven’t seen for so long. I’m sure it will be emotional for all of us.”
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to attend Tuesday’s game at 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano (built in 1946) in the first game there involving a major league team in 20 years. The Rolling Stones will hold a concert at the stadium, an event put together by former Pawtucket Red Sox owner Lou Schwechheimer’s group Caribbean Baseball Initiative, which owns the rights to any future major league team in Cuba.
About a year ago, President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro decided to “normalize” relations between the countries, which could open up a new world of possibilities for baseball.
Also on the ESPN crew is reporter Pedro Gomez, the son of Cuban refugees.
Apropos of nothing
1. We all would love to have our children join us at work, but White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams was 100 percent right when he asked Adam LaRoche to scale back the time his 14-year-old son, Drake, spent in the clubhouse. It’s not allowed in most businesses, so why should it be allowed in baseball? Williams never said he couldn’t be there, period. It’s Williams’s right to make this demand and LaRoche’s right to walk away from $13 million and retire. LaRoche sounds like a great dad, and now he doesn’t have to worry about being separated from his family. I’ve seen future big leaguers bond with their dads before games. Prince Fielder always tagged around with Cecil, Junior Griffey was always with Ken Griffey. We’ve seen a lot of D’Angelo Ortiz over the years and in spring training we’ve seen Dave Dombrowski’s son, Landon, around the team. For Williams to make this an issue, it had to come from someone inside the clubhouse who found the situation getting to be a little too much. It’s Williams’s responsibility to make sure the players follow the rules. If manager Robin Ventura and general manager Rick Hahn had made an agreement with LaRoche about his son, then they did it without Williams’s consent, and that would be another ball of wax.
2. Here are more reasons Pablo Sandoval’s weight is a factor: There were 17 instances last season when Sandoval was on first base when a single was hit, and all 17 times he made it only as far as second base. There were seven times when Sandoval was on first when a double was hit, and six times he made it only to third, and he never scored. And in the 11 times he was on second when a single was hit, he scored just three times. His “extra base taken percentage” of 9 percent was half of David Ortiz’s. Dustin Pedroia was at 32 percent and Mookie Betts 44 percent.
3. Good idea: Pawtucket has decided on a PawSox Hall of Fame. The first inductees are late owner Ben Mondor, Jim Rice, and Wade Boggs.
4. Teams looking for midseason pitching help should reach out to Cliff Lee, Kyle Lohse, Justin Masterson, Aaron Harang, and Tim Lincecum.
5. It’s only spring training, but who doesn’t love Sam Travis’s swing? The young Red Sox first baseman doesn’t look that far off from setting up a position battle with Travis Shaw.
Updates on nine
1. Marco Hernandez, INF, Red Sox — Hernandez, who was acquired from the Cubs for Felix Doubront, has been a camp star. He’s hitting over .500 and has played multiple positions. Hernandez will likely start in Pawtucket, but he may also be a target of other teams.
2. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Red Sox — Craig has had a decent camp. With Adam LaRoche retiring, could the White Sox be a trade match? In any deal, the Red Sox would have to foot most of the $20 million remaining on his contract. Craig could be a valuable righthanded bat for the White Sox in a hitter-friendly ballpark.
3. Jose Iglesias, SS, Tigers — The defensive metrics and the eyeball test didn’t quite add up with Iglesias in 2015. Here’s the most talented shortstop in the game (right there with Andrelton Simmons) and Iglesias was scoring low in defensive runs saved and UZR. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said what they found was a shortstop who was lunging forward when the ball was hit, limiting his lateral movement and his range. So the Tigers have made him aware to stay back so he can use his eye-popping range to his advantage.
4. Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Tigers — The organization views Sanchez as the lynchpin to its success this season. He’s basically the Tigers’ Clay Buchholz, a guy with talent but who always seems to find his way to the disabled list. The Tigers’ staff has the potential to be very good with Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann in front of Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Daniel Norris. The Tigers also expect Matt Boyd to crack the rotation this season.
5. Rich Hill, LHP, Athletics — The former Red Sox, who pitched brilliantly in September, is having a rough spring statistically (13 runs, 12 walks in 7⅔ innings) but said, “Overall it’s going well . . . Mechanically, I’m working toward where I was last year. I have made good progress in the last few days and am looking forward to my next outing.”
6. Jason Grilli, RHP, Braves — Grilli has shown signs he may return to the form he showed prior to having Achilles’ surgery last July. His agent, Gary Sheffield, said, “He’s throwing 93 and he’s on schedule to be ready to go by Opening Day.” Grilli was 24 of 26 in save chances last year before the injury. The fact he’s back so quickly at age 39 is impressive.
7. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox — I understand Sale’s emotion in the LaRoche matter, but you don’t blast your boss in public like he did. Sale should be reprimanded for his rant over “being lied to” about whether LaRoche could have his son in the clubhouse. By the way, Sale hasn’t even moved the needle on whether the White Sox would trade him. One team official said, “No chance. There was no chance in the offseason and no chance now. We’re building our team around Chris Sale.”
8. Andrew Bailey, RHP, Phillies — Bailey was Boston’s closer twice and twice shut it down with injuries, including major shoulder surgery in 2013 that could have ended his career. He came back with the Yankees but suffered setbacks. He signed with the Phillies this offseason and is in position to become their closer.
9. Juan Nicasio, RHP, Pirates — Have the Pirates struck gold again with a pitcher? Nicasio, signed to a one-year, $3 million deal, doesn’t seem to have a place in the rotation, but he struck out 10 of the 14 batters he faced against the Orioles last Wednesday. Nicasio has had an unspectacular five-year career with the Rockies and Dodgers, starting 70 of 141 appearances, but his stuff is undeniable. At age 29, has he put it all together? He certainly drew oohs and aahs from the Orioles and scouts in the stands that day.
Thank you, Bill Chuck for providing this space such pithy baseball facts and statistics for more than a decade. We congratulate you on your new position providing the same information for the MLB Network. Best of luck . . . Happy birthday, Manny Alexander (45).
Baseball has long included promotion days to lure people to or reward them for coming to the ballpark. Every team’s schedule is filled with dates for bobblehead and gnome giveaways, postgame concerts or fireworks, honors for this group or that, and dog days, when pooches are welcome to catch some day baseball. Caps have always been a standby, but this season, your chapeau options are greater than ever. Check out the headpieces available in 2016, and some of the other more interesting offerings.