Kris Medlen felt his hands shake inside the parking lot on Wednesday. The nerves were understandable. He had driven to the Royals complex for weeks in pursuit of a day like this, when what he called a “huge milestone” would coincide with the sort of anniversary no pitcher wants to observe.
Wednesday marked 365 days since his second Tommy John surgery. Medlen celebrated by splitting an ice cream cake with Luke Hochevar, a fellow survivor of elbow reconstruction. Then he completed his first bullpen session since undergoing the procedure.
“It’s almost symbolic,” Medlen said. “Not ‘You’re back.’ But ‘It begins,’ that kind of thing.”
Under the watchful eyes of pitching coach Dave Eiland and the club’s training staff, Medlen threw 17 pitches to fellow former Braves minor-leaguer J.C. Boscan. He overcame the nerves inherent with the activity. The last time he pitched on a mound, he departed the premises clutching his elbow. As Medlen analyzed his outing on Thursday morning, he referenced a combination of excitement about his health with exasperation about his imprecision.
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“I felt like I was extremely rusty,” Medlen said. “Because I was just having trouble repeating (my delivery) and all that stuff. That’s my pitching style, and I take pride in that, and I couldn’t do it. So that was a little frustrating. But armwise, it felt like it was coming out really good. I felt strong.”
Eiland indicated Medlen would receive four days off before his next throwing session. He was pleased with Medlen’s performance. “It was coming out nice and clean,” Eiland said. “Really good.”
When the Royals break camp in two weeks, Medlen will join them in Kansas City. He intends to travel with the club for their first road trip in April. He will return to Surprise when he is ready to face hitters.
That date is something of a mystery. Medlen insists he does not look ahead at his rehabilitation schedule. Manager Ned Yost suggested Medlen could contribute to the big-league club by June. General manager Dayton Moore offers a more conservative estimate that calls for Medlen to join the team after the All-Star break.
Medlen knows this much: When it comes to a pitcher’s ulnar collateral ligament, little is guaranteed. He overcame the surgery in 2010 to post a 2.47 ERA as a starter and reliever in Atlanta from 2012 to 2013. The Braves rewarded him with a $5.8 million contract for the next season. His future looked secure.
On March 9, 2014, Medlen experienced “a stabbing feeling” in his arm after spinning a two-strike curveball to Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson. He pressed his left thumb into the crook of his elbow and felt the damaged ligament. His eyes watered. His mind filled with dark thoughts and expletives.
Ten days later, Dr. James Andrews reconstructed his elbow for the second time. He transplanted a ligament from Medlen’s right wrist. The new ligament replaced one from Medlen’s left hamstring that Andrews had initially installed into his elbow in 2009.
The first ligament had failed. The Royals banked on the latest replacement holding up. After Atlanta declined to tender Medlen a contract, he agreed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal with Kansas City. His contributions in 2016 should exceed his output this season. Medlen has expressed willingness to either pitch as a starter or in relief.
Before he threw on Wednesday morning, he posed for pictures with Hochevar. They shared a surgery date, so rehab coordinator Jeff Blum brought them a cookies-and-cream cake. They held knives above the dessert to commemorate the career-altering procedure.
Medlen has experienced an easy transition into the fabric of this club. He praised the training staff for their proactive approach, which he considered crucial to his journey back to the mound, a journey that saw a significant step on Wednesday.
“If I do have something that’s bothering me here, I’m not afraid to say anything here and go in there and have it taken care of,” Medlen said. “There’s a lot of preventive stuff going on here. It just eases my mind that much better.”
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