VIERA, Fla. - Christian Garcia knows what Kris Medlen is going through right now.
He knows the disappointment. He knows the frustration. He knows the doubts that might be swirling through Medlen’s mind as he wonders if he’ll ever pitch at a high level again.
Four days ago, Medlen - a talented 28-year-old right-hander with the Braves who won 15 games last year - threw a pitch to Mets first baseman Matt Clark and immediately walked off the mound toward the Atlanta dugout. Medlen, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, knew something was wrong, and he didn’t need to wait around on the rubber for a trainer to tell him so.
Yesterday, Medlen told Braves reporters that he expects to need Tommy John for a second time. Not too many pitchers come back from two Tommy John surgeries. But Garcia did.
Garcia had his first Tommy John procedure in 2006, one year after the right-hander was taken by the Yankees in the third round out of Gulliver Prep High School in the Miami area. In 2010, Garcia had the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow snap again. It was a complete tear, and Garcia was heartbroken.
“I was really sad,” Garcia recalled. “I knew something was wrong because I felt it. I felt it pop. I was already worried about it, and when they told me that I needed a second (Tommy John), I literally broke down in tears. I knew I could possibly never play again. Not many people had (come back from two Tommy John surgeries) before me. I actually didn’t know of anybody who had done it twice.”
Garcia’s friend, John Mayberry Jr., an outfielder with the Phillies, reached out and informed him that a guy on his team - right-hander Scott Mathieson - actually had twice undergone Tommy John. Mathieson had worked back to the big leagues, so Mayberry put Garcia and Mathieson in contact in hopes that a conversation would ease his buddy’s mind.
“(Mathieson) kind of settled me down and told me it was going to be fine and he was able to overcome it,” Garcia said. “Told me not to listen to what people were telling me. Doctors were saying there was about a 5-10 percent chance of playing again. So that was kind of hard, but after I had the surgery and started coming back, I realized anything can happen. I was starting to feel good, wasn’t feeling pain.
“Now, I think there’s a lot of guys (who have come back from two Tommy Johns). It’s not as unheard of anymore as it was then.”
You’re probably familiar with a few of the guys who have come back from two Tommy John procedures. Former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne did it (although he wasn’t nearly as dominant after the second surgery), as have Red Sox left-hander Chris Capuano, Mariners lefty Randy Wolf, Diamondbacks righty Daniel Hudson and Blue Jays righty Kyle Drabek. But that 5-10 percent chance of full recovery that Garcia heard in 2010 probably isn’t too much lower than what doctors might tell Medlen now.
The rehab process typically takes longer the second time a pitcher has Tommy John. Garcia’s took 18 months the second time around, compared to the 12-month window that most pitchers look at the first time through the Tommy John rehab process.
The first time Garcia had Tommy John, doctors took a ligament from his left forearm/wrist area and used it to replace the torn UCL in Garcia’s elbow. The second time, they took a ligament from Garcia’s hamstring, which left his leg in immense pain after he awoke following the procedure.
“That was by far the worst,” Garcia said.
Making the second Tommy John rehab even tougher on Garcia was that the Yankees released him following the procedure, leaving him feeling like he didn’t have a support system or a team to lean on as he rehabbed.
Garcia diligently worked back and ended up signing a minor league deal with the Nationals in 2011. A year and a half later, he finally reached the majors for the first time, and pitched well enough that he earned a spot on the Nats’ postseason roster that fall.
“I feel like I just enjoyed it so much more. (I was) so appreciative, because it took so much work,” Garcia said. “Having to rehab, and being out of the game for two years, not knowing if you’re going to be able to come back. Personally, you believe in yourself. You feel like you’re going to be able to come back, but there’s no guarantee.”
Medlen has had big league success prior to his second UCL tear, so he’s in a different situation than Garcia, who was still struggling to work his way up through the minor league ranks when he needed his second Tommy John. Still, Garcia says he relates to what Medlen is going through right now.
“I can totally understand what he’s feeling, because mine also happened in the beginning of the year,” Garcia said. “You work the whole offseason to get ready for your season, and then all of a sudden, boom, that happens. You’re not expecting that.
“To have a setback like that, it’s tough. I feel for him. It sucks for him right now. He’s gonna be fine. He’s gonna be able to come back and play again.”