Orioles pitcher Tommy Milone is spending his days and nights working out and finding tasks to stay busy at his home in Santa Clarita, Calif., a city that’s located about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles and known for its variety of roller coasters at the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park.
Milone should be used to the ups and downs. But his first year with the Orioles has been a shock to the system.
How could the veteran left-hander have anticipated everything thrown at him? The coronavirus pandemic that shut down spring training on March 12 and the return home about a week later. The news that one of his new teammates, Trey Mancini, had been diagnosed with colon cancer and needed to undergo surgery on the same day that baseball no longer could be played.
Heading back to Southern California made sense to Milone after the initial decision to remain in Sarasota.
“When we realized that it was going to probably be longer than we thought, we thought we may as well just go home,” he said yesterday in a phone conversation. “We’ve got a nice backyard with a pool we can utilize and stuff like that, so we figured it would be best that, if we’ve got to be at home, to spend it here.”
Like so many other pitchers and position players on the team, Milone is preparing for a season that might not move past the discussion stages between ownership and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The sides are reported to be drawing closer to an agreement one minute and then the wedge between them digs a little deeper.
“I wake up and kind of kill some time with whatever we have around the house,” Milone said. “Hopefully it’s warm so we can head outside for a little bit. And around 11 I’ll play catch with another guy that I threw with in the offseason who lives out here.
“I have a little gym set up at the house, so I’ll come back and I’ll work out most days and then be done on the workout baseball side and try to figure out something else to do for the rest of the day. That’s the challenge, it seems like.”
Milone owns a portable mound at his residence that’s constructed of wood with turf spread on top of it.
“I have just enough space to pitch in my backyard,” he said, “but I take it with me to a softball field and we’ll put it out there and throw.”
The last few trips have enabled Milone to face live hitting, with a couple of minor leaguers willing to join him.
Tuesday’s excursion allowed Milone to work the equivalent of three innings at around 58 pitches.
“It’s obviously not game-like, but still, you’re getting after it a little bit more because you’re facing hitters, your focus is a little bit more there,” he said. “To be honest, I think it’s relatively close to me actually pitching three innings. Let’s say I stop there, I head to spring training, I could probably give at least three or maybe even four the first time out, and then after that you just tack on one every other outing.
“I would say relatively quickly for me. I know other guys are in different situations where they might not even be able to throw to a catcher. I think everybody’s situation is going to be different coming into spring, if there is one. But yeah, for me personally I think it wouldn’t be too hard.”
A second spring training would need to last at least three weeks, with a full month the preference but perhaps unrealistic. It helps that Milone is slightly ahead of the curve, so to speak.
“I feel like I’ve been lucky to have a mound and be able to get outside and actually throw to hitters,” he said.
“I would say three weeks is probably a good timeline.”
Pitchers can’t be expected to open a season and immediately begin working deep into games. This is going to be a process - again, if baseball actually is played - that requires an expanded roster and bullpen.
“I think it’s realistic to expect at least the first couple times out, and this is just a guess, obviously, that starters probably wouldn’t go past five innings,” Milone said. “It depends more on pitch count than anything. That would be my guess, especially with a little bit shorter spring. But everybody’s different. Guys that are able to throw to guys consistently might have a little bit more of a leg up and more leeway or a longer leash at the beginning versus guys that come in and haven’t faced hitters, they can only simulate bullpens and stuff like that.
“I think that’s going to be the tricky part for the coaching staff to kind of navigate through all of that, all the different aspects that guys had to go through during this time.”
Milone, 33, made only one start in the first camp due to soreness in his trapezius/neck area. He tossed two scoreless innings with three strikeouts in a Feb. 27 game against the Pirates, throwing 16 of his 23 pitches for strikes and getting an impressive number of swings and misses with his changeup.
Feels like it happened a year ago. Amazing how much the world has changed.
Milone was supposed to face the Nationals on March 3 in West Palm, but the Orioles kept him back in Sarasota and handed the ball to Ty Blach. Milone was reduced to flat-ground sessions, hitting the restart button on his camp.
Improved health allowed Milone to join Alex Cobb in a simulated game on March 12, while the Orioles were learning that their exhibition game against the Twins in Fort Myers had been canceled. Two days later, the team began to break apart as players and staff booked flights home.
“I’m feeling good, ready to roll,” Milone said.
“I wasn’t fully recovered by that (sim game) point. It was more like on the decline part of it. It was one of those things where I was testing it first and then as long as I could have still tested it but also get better at the same time, I was going to continue to keep going. Obviously if it was the other way, then there’s no point to push it. I don’t want to end up being out longer.
“It was maybe a week after that point that I pitched, it was fully recovered. But it wasn’t to the point where it was hurting me really bad. I was able to throw and be fine, and just continue to throw while it was getting better.”
Finding a semblance of normalcy in spring training took some searching. Milone didn’t agree to terms on a minor league contract until Feb. 13 and reported two days later, making him a late arrival in camp, and the injury disrupted his routine.
Then came the virus that made everything else seem trivial.
“It’s definitely one for the books, for sure,” said Milone, who’s 50-47 with a 4.47 ERA and 1.316 WHIP in 174 career games, including 136 starts.
“The signing late wasn’t ideal. I would have loved to sign, obviously, before players start showing up. And especially in spring training, that’s the first time I think I ever had to sit out any kind of games, so that wasn’t that fun. And then I’m in the same boat as everybody else this year about the shutdown, so it’s definitely one that we’re just rolling with it as it goes, and hopefully it starts up here pretty soon.”
The news on Mancini, who continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments in Baltimore, stunned Milone.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That was a tough blow, for sure.”
Milone stays connected to the Orioles via Zoom calls, like the ones he has with manager Brandon Hyde, and WhatsApp, which allows users to send text and voice messages, make voice and video calls and share documents that pitching coach Doug Brocail, bullpen coach Darren Holmes and director of pitching Chris Holt check in order to keep everyone on their respective schedules and programs.
“They relay it to us, so we’re in the loop with what’s going on and stuff like that,” Milone said. “We’re in touch that way.”
The most recent reports yesterday had owners refusing the players’ wishes for a 114-game schedule due to concerns over a second wave of the virus, and no counteroffer was forthcoming. A postseason is a must for owners.
MLB could attempt to implement a 50-to-60-game schedule, with competition held only within the division and the same region in the other league.
“I don’t think it’s something we’re going to realize until we actually get there and get going,” Milone said. “Baseball is baseball. Once we get out there it’s going to be the same game.
“I think the weirdest thing is going to be playing without fans in the stands because sometimes you feed off that energy, what’s going on. But once you get out there you’re playing the same game, whether it’s 50 games versus 162. It’s just, once you get to that last part we’ll probably have a little bit of an empty feeling in our stomachs thinking like, ‘Wow, we can play a lot more,’ because obviously we’re used to playing a lot more. But we’ll just kind of roll with it as it goes and just keep going until they tell us not to.”