Henry excited to be pitching again, but understands process

Cole Henry has had a long road in front of him. Ever since he decided to undergo surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last August, he has faced an uphill climb to get his career back on track.

All things considered, it’s been so far, so good for the Nationals’ No. 12 prospect, per MLB Pipeline.

Thoracic outlet syndrome surgery has a negative stigma surrounding it in baseball, especially here in Washington as it derailed the careers of Stephen Strasburg and Will Harris.

Granted, those pitchers were older than the now 24-year-old Henry was when they had their surgeries. But any procedure in which a rib and a neck muscle are removed would come with tales of caution.

But Henry is on the path to being a success story having been able to report to spring training just six months after his own surgery and pitching in minor league games three months after that.

“I'm feeling great,” Henry said two weeks ago while Double-A Harrisburg was in Bowie for a six-game series against the Baysox (Orioles). “The season's been pretty good so far. I've been happy with how most of my outings have gone. Ran into a little bit of a setback a couple of weeks ago, just feeling a little bit of tightness in my neck. And then that's kind of dissipated. We worked on it pretty well. I continued to throw. Everything felt really good. It's gone away now and feels back to normal, so ramping up my innings a little bit and slowly getting there.”

A “setback” is never a word you want to hear associated with one still recovering from a major surgery. But Henry insists he missed about three weeks at the end of June due general fatigue from ramping up his arm again and nothing to do with thoracic outlet syndrome.

“No, no, definitely just getting back into the routine,” he said. “Obviously, I got a couple of muscles taken out of my neck. So the other muscles are kind of taking more of a load now and my body is just kind of getting used to that. So that's all that was. I just had to get my arm a couple of weeks break and (unload) a little bit and then slowly get back into it. And then hopefully in the next coming weeks, I'll be back up three, four or five innings. And it'll be like that for the rest of the season probably.”

The increase in innings has yet to come in the weeks since our conversation in the visitors dugout at Prince George's Stadium. Henry hasn’t pitched more than two innings in the four starts since he returned from his setback.

Is it hard not getting antsy to get back out there? Or is it easier to understand the process?

“A little bit of both,” Henry said. “I consider myself a competitor, so obviously the competitor in me wants to be out there for five, six, seven innings, however long, and just play baseball. But in the back of my mind, too, I know that it's a slow process. I gotta take it easy and make sure that, not only that I can pitch this year, but going forward for many of years. So that's also there, too. So it's just been a process and I had to take a step back every now and then. I didn't have surgery but less than a year ago. So it's definitely been a process. It's been tough, but at the same time, I know what comes with it.”

Heading into his start at Bowie, Henry had only thrown 25 ⅓ innings between two rehab starts apiece with Single-A Fredericksburg and High-A Wilmington and his first four starts with Harrisburg. He’s thrown 2 ⅔ in two starts since for 28 total on the year so far.

The limited innings are a part of that process.

“Definitely,” he said. “Yeah, 25 innings in-season, I probably threw like 15-ish before coming to an affiliate. They want me around close to 100 innings by the end of the year. But the main goal mostly is just be able to go end to end throughout the season, be able to pitch the whole season. And that's the main goal, obviously: Just to make it through the whole season and know that my body can hold up for a whole season.”

In the limited innings he has pitched, Henry has been effective and shown flashes of the stuff that made him a 2020 second-round pick out of LSU.

He threw seven scoreless innings with four hits and 11 strikeouts in his two starts with Fredericksburg. He only gave up two runs, six hits and three walks with five strikeouts over eight innings (2.25 ERA) with Wilmington. And although he has a 9.00 ERA in six starts with Harrisburg, he had back-to-back outings with two shutout innings in his first outings since his setback, leaving the right-hander content with the results so far.

“I've been pretty happy with my fastball velocity-wise,” he said. “It's been pretty normal, so that's good. It ticked up a little bit last outing (July 15), so I was happy with that. I've been working on obviously my changeup. Usually it's pretty good, so that's been there most of the whole season. I've been working on just getting more consistent with my slider, finding good shape for it and just continuing to be able to throw it in-game. So it's all been a work in progress. And it's been good being able to get back out here and facing some pretty good competition.”

There are things outside of his pitching arsenal and recovery that he’s working on, however. Henry has never pitched a full season even dating back to his college days. He’s still learning how to take care of his body – outside of his unusual surgery rehab – during the course of a season.

“I would say just getting stronger in-season. That was a big thing for me,” he said. “I lose a lot of weight in-season, especially when it's super hot out like it is now. And that's not real good for me. So I definitely just try to keep weight on, try to lift between starts and just make sure I'm keeping that strength throughout the week. Start by start, different things come up that I realize I need to work on or get better at. … It's been good stuff. Just stuff that normally guys would do in-season, but I haven't been able to throw a whole season. So just learning my body, learning pitches, learning everything. Professional baseball is a very long season compared to college and high school, so it's definitely just been a learning process. It's been exciting, man. I've never been able to do it like this, so it's been good.”

Henry’s teammates at Harrisburg are also exciting for him. He joins fellow top prospects James Wood, Brady House, Robert Hassell III and Trey Lipscomb on the Senators roster. And even though he’s just a couple of years older than those guys, he’s been around the organization the longest, making him the old veteran on the team.

An old veteran who is still looking to advance back up to Triple-A Rochester before season’s end. But even if he doesn’t, he’s just happy to be back around with a team.

“Definitely always looking to move up,” Henry said of his other goals this season. “The better the competition, the better for me. But at the same time, we have a great staff here, a great team. A lot of young guys, exciting prospects that make it fun to come to the ballpark every day and watch. I try to help them out even though I don't consider myself an old guy. But around these guys, I feel like an old guy. So either way, man, I'm content with just being able to throw every week and be a part of a team. That's the biggest thing. It's way better than being in Florida rehabbing.”

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