FORT MYERS, Fla. — We saw glimpses of what Steven Wright would look like out of the Red Sox bullpen last September. And boy was it impressive.
Except that the left knee he had repaired with restorative surgery 20 months ago failed him again. He missed the postseason, had arthroscopic surgery in November to clean up scar tissue, and here we are again, as he hopes to put his physical ailments behind him.
“I feel good, but it’s still the early stages,” Wright said Tuesday after undergoing a physical at JetBlue Park ahead of the pitchers’ and catchers’ first official workout Wednesday.
“With the season going a month longer, it shortened the rehab process in the offseason. I started throwing last week. It felt good. I’m just trying not to overdo it too soon. It’s a long year, so I just want to make sure when I do come back, I don’t have to worry about going on and off the DL and I’m good to go.”
And that, basically, is the major question surrounding the knuckleballer: Will he be good to go? Or will he experience another setback?
Wright had a surgery similar to that performed on Dustin Pedroia, who also had a microfracture procedure. It has been so hard for both players to get back. They will get together when Pedroia reports next week and they can discuss what they’ve gone through.
Both Dave Dombrowski and Alex Cora have mentioned Wright being an important bullpen piece this season, especially with Joe Kelly off to the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel in free agent limbo. But for that to happen, Wright has to show he can stay on the field.
“I still have some strength to build up,” he said. “I’m not taking it slow to where I’m babying it, but I want to make sure we do it right. We have a good game plan going forward as far as workload.
“It’s going to be a day-by-day thing. I don’t think I’m ever going to feel 100 percent, like before I hurt my knee, but I just want to get it as close as I can and be consistent with it.”
Wright’s words don’t inspire a lot of confidence in that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be 100 percent. That statement is alarming. He referenced feeling as though he were pitching with a flat tire. The good news is that he is a knuckleball pitcher who consistently gets batters out even with a bum leg.
Whether he’s over the hump or not, who knows?
“I hope so,” he said. “There were times last year where I thought I was over the hump and then it came back and bit me in the butt.
“I’m at the point where I have a better understanding of it. I think last year nobody has ever had this surgery before in baseball, so I think it was trial and error for both me and Pedey. So we have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do and what we should or shouldn’t do.
“I need to try to minimize the risk/reward of what I have to do to get ready. As much as I like to run, there are ways of getting around it, and just cover the bases and back up on plays. If I can reduce that high-impact stuff to a minimum, I feel it will be better for me.”
Wright said he probably will wear a knee brace when he pitches to reduce the impact.
“Last year was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “I had starts in which I felt good. The big thing is monitoring swelling. It was a significant injury. Once you start to swell, the muscles go. I just want to be able to pitch and be a regular guy.”
The Red Sox seemed to strike the right balance for him last year once he returned to the active roster. He went on the injured list after a horrible June 22 start and didn’t return until Sept. 3 in relief.
He had made three starts in which he allowed one earned run over 20⅔ innings from June 5-16. On June 22 vs. Seattle, he was charged with 10 runs and 10 hits over 3⅓ innings. He returned in September and pitched 13⅔ innings in relief, allowing one earned run in 10 appearances that included a save.
It has been a stressful two years for Wright. He has had to deal with the knee problems and a domestic assault charge. His record was wiped clean after he met the conditions for no additional arrests or violations for one year after the Dec. 8, 2017, incident at his home. He served a 15-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy and completed court-ordered counseling with his wife.
By all accounts, the Wright family is happy and normal again. And now he’s hoping his baseball career becomes that way again soon.
But there are no guarantees. The further away he gets from his surgery, the more he expects from himself. He can be a very important part of this bullpen, or even the starting rotation, as Dombrowski and Cora wish for him. He’s also great insurance for rotation depth, with Chris Sale and Rick Porcello both free agents after the season.
One of Wright’s regrets is that he wasn’t able to share in the postseason exploits of teammates last year. He wanted to be a part of that, but neither he nor Pedroia was able to participate.
He’s 34 years old. For a knuckleballer, he might as well be 24. Tim Wakefield pitched until he was 45. Phil Niekro was 48.
“We’ll take it slow on the front end,” Wright said. “I’m throwing at 75 feet right now and it feels fine. If I can gradually build that up and get my knee stronger. I should be fine.”