Henry "full-go" to start camp after thoracic outlet syndrome surgery

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Cole Henry missed out on the opportunity to attend his first major league spring training in 2023. He was still recovering from the thoracic outlet syndrome surgery he had in August 2022.

Now 18 months removed from the complex procedure, which involved removing a rib and a neck muscle, the 24-year-old right-hander finally finds himself inside the Nationals clubhouse at the team’s spring training facility. And more importantly, he’s participating in team workouts.

“As of right now, I'm feeling really good,” Henry said. “This is the first offseason I've been able to really work on just strengthening and perfecting the craft a little bit mechanics-wise and stuff like that and not worry about having to rehab. Just make sure I'm able to throw by the time spring training comes around, so it's very productive as far as that stuff goes. I just had to tweak a couple things trying to get back to the way I was before as far as my mechanics and stuff, pitch shapes, different things like that. Majority of the offseason was working on just trying to get stronger, trying to be more durable and just overall focus on just building strength and getting ready for a long season.”

The further removed Henry gets from his surgery, the better he feels. And the closer he gets to getting back to normal. But he still understands the complexities of his surgery and recovery, and that just because he’s back on a mound, that doesn’t mean he’s completely done with the aftereffects.

“I definitely think, as with any surgery, it's going to take a year or two years just to be fully past it,” he said. “I mean, I'll still have hiccups here and there as far as just a little bit more soreness on different days. Doing new things or pitching for a little bit longer than I'm used to. Whatever it is, there's gonna be a little bit of that. But as far as being able to let the reins loose a little bit, take the training wheels off it's been full-go. No restraints as far as rehab or anything. I've been basically going after it like it's gonna be a regular full season.”

Unlike some unfortunate pitchers who have also undergone thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Henry returned to the mound months after his procedure. While the Nationals slow-paced him throughout the season, he said in July the goal was for him to finish the season close to 100 innings.

He only finished with 33 ⅓ frames between Single-A Fredericksburg, High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg, so he expects to aim for 100 again this season.

“I think we'll probably play it by ear as far as that goes,” Henry said of his expected 2024 innings limit. “I really haven't had my meeting yet, so I'm sure they'll probably go over the plan and the meetings that we're supposed to have in the next few days or so. But yeah, I would expect just probably still an innings count out I would imagine. But hopefully up there in the 75 to 100 innings range. Maybe more just depending on how I feel. I'm not really sure what the whole plan is, but yeah, right now, it's just getting ready for all systems go (as a) starter. That's all I know right now.”

For now in camp, the former second-round pick is happy the mental aspect of his recovery is improving. He’s no longer thinking about it too much. He’s just going out and pitching.

“It's been really cool as far as that goes,” Henry said. “You never want to be on the mound thinking about anything else other than the job at hand. It's just getting hitters out. And I feel like a lot of my professional career has been like, man, is my arm really going to be fine today? Is it gonna be able to do what I want it to do? And I think I'm starting to really get past that. The goal after surgery was, you know, I want to wake up in two or three years and just forget I even had surgery. So as far as that's going, yeah, I'm feeling a lot better. I'm recovering a lot better. So it's been really good so far.”

And he’s been able to enjoy it with some fellow pitching prospects. His locker is right next to Cade Cavalli, who was selected by the Nats ahead of him in the first round in the 2020 draft. Two lockers down is Jackson Rutledge, the Nats’ 2019 first-round pick. Further down the line is Jake Irvin, who had a surprisingly strong rookie season last year. Cavalli and Irvin even made a point to come watch Henry throw live batting practice on Tuesday.

The young hurlers, who have been teammates in the minors the past couple of years, can see themselves helping the major league club soon.

“It's really cool. It's really awesome just to be able to go through the ranks with these guys since day one,” Henry said. “I remember our first big league camp together, it felt like just a few short years ago, which it was. So for me, it's just cool being able to come in and know most of, if not all, this clubhouse – besides obviously the new signings and stuff – but starting to feel more like a team. So that's the cool part. And just feel more comfortable overall and being able to see your friends every day and know all these guys. It's just a really cool feeling.”

As for his production on the mound, Henry got to test his stuff against fellow top prospects Dylan Crews, James Wood, Brady House, Robert Hassell III, Trey Lipscomb and Darren Baker in two “innings” on one of the back fields at the spring training complex, getting a first-hand impression of what it’s like to face his talented position player teammates from the farm.

“Obviously we have some really good guys coming up and I'm hoping to kind of stick right there with him as far as going up the ranks,” Henry said. “But yeah, it's really exciting to have some guys behind you in the field that you know can run down to balls and play a really good defense and then also step up to the plate and knock a few runs in. It makes a pitcher more confident in himself, knowing that you can go out there and give up a run or two and you're definitely still in it. So yeah, these guys are exciting to watch and I'm hoping that iron sharpens iron around here.”

“It's good to see him throwing again,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Good to see him competing again. He threw a live BP and it was awesome. And he threw the ball well, which was great. I know he's had some struggles with injuries, but hopefully it's all behind him now and we can focus on what we need him to focus on and try to get back on the mound and help us win games. Since three years ago when I first laid eyes on him – well a little longer than that probably now – but I always thought he's gonna be really good. Injuries have set him back a little, but with that being said, he looks healthy, he says he feels great. So we’re trying to get him on the mound consistently now.”

The only negative for Henry so far: He was on the wrong side of the biggest highlight in camp to date.

Facing Crews, a fellow LSU Tiger and last summer’s No. 2 overall pick, Henry surrendered an opposite-field home run on the top prospect’s first swing of live BP. Even with videos of the longball instantly circulating social media, Crews, who is very quiet and humble for someone of his status, didn’t want to brag about getting the best of Henry, who kind of wished he did.

“It was good. I think it was the shot heard around the world (Tuesday),” Henry said. “I get home and I see a million tweets and Instagram posts of Dylan Crews hitting a homer off me, so that was pretty cool. But yeah, I messed with him a little bit (Tuesday). He's not gonna rub it in your face or anything, but I kind of wanted him to. I was like, 'Dude, you hit it.' He's like, 'I got it. You'll get me next time.' I'm like, 'Nah, bro. You got it.' He was like, 'I barely (hit it). I missed it, I missed it.' I was like, 'No.' So it was good. Good swing. Keep doing it. We're excited to have him and it's a good thing we don't have to face him during the season. It's fun and I'm really enjoying all these guys.”

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