One year and three days after undergoing his second reconstructive surgery on his left elbow, Orioles pitcher Josh Rogers stepped on a half mound at a friend’s indoor sports training facility in Sellersburg, Ind., threw a baseball and felt whole again.
Didn’t really matter that there’s no minor league season to shoot for or a definite plan for later in the summer and over the winter. Rogers had battled back again from a serious injury, the kind that can wreck a career.
That half mound was full confirmation.
“I’m on a full mound next week and the intensity starts to raise up,” he said in a phone conversation, “and then by August I’ll be facing live hitters and stuff again.”
Rogers wanted to rehab at the University of Louisville, where he pitched before the Yankees selected him in the 11th round of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft, but the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t allow it.
“Their facility is, obviously, closed,” he said, “so I have somebody here local that owns a facility called ‘The Lab.’ It’s pretty awesome. It’s got a bunch of cages in there and then lanes to throw bullpens in. I think there’s five or six mounds in there, so it’s really nice.
“I’ve been out to 140 feet for, like, 50 throws, so I’m pretty much fully capable of throwing on the mound, but I had to be at a lower capacity just because it was the first time. But I feel awesome. I’ve lost, like, 22 pounds and I feel really, really good.”
The Orioles are monitoring him from long distance, which has become the norm in 2020. Rogers speaks weekly with physical therapist Kyle Corrick and stays in contact with Orioles director of pitching Chris Holt and pitching rehabilitation coach Mike Griffin - formerly the pitching coach at Triple-A Norfolk.
“I sent videos and we go back and forth,” Rogers said. “I talked to (Doug) Brocail this past week, too. I sent him some video. He says the same thing. ‘Man, it would be nice to get some eyes on you, to throw in front of some people.’ I’m like, ‘I hear you. Just let me know when and where.’ But with the virus stuff it’s so complicated right now and they’ve got bigger priorities than my rehab at this point.
“I think if the season was normal it would be a heck of a lot easier. Be in Sarasota or be wherever with the team and have eyes on me, but obviously with the circumstances, nothing is normal as of right now.”
Rogers wasn’t his usual self the previous summer, lacking command and the feel for his pitches. He posted an 8.51 ERA and 1.745 WHIP in 11 starts with Norfolk and surrendered 14 runs in 14 1/3 innings over five relief appearances with the Orioles.
The staff gave up home runs in bunches and he accounted for seven of them.
Rogers didn’t throw a pitch after allowing three runs and five hits against the Padres on June 25, returning to the clubhouse shaken because he knew that surgery was necessary. Again. He was removed from the 40-man roster in November.
The Orioles announced on July 3 that Rogers, who’s celebrating his 26th birthday today, had a procedure on his elbow known as an ulnar collateral ligament “revision,” the fancy name given for a second Tommy John surgery. The first happened during his senior year in high school.
Dr. Keith Meister performed the latest surgery in Arlington, Texas, but it wasn’t the standard procedure, as Rogers explains it.
“They took a tendon from my right hamstring and they moved it to where the ligament in my elbow goes, but they also inserted an internal brace inside of my arm with the ligament through the bones,” said Rogers, who came to the Orioles in the 2018 deadline trade with the Yankees for closer Zack Britton. “I have the tendon from my hamstring in my arm and also an internal brace. It’s one of Dr. Meister’s new things he’s been trying and we decided to go for it.
“He’s had some success with it, but he doesn’t have enough data to put it out there like, ‘Hey, this works 100 percent of the time.’ I think he’s done well over 150 and he’s gotten good results on all of them, but he said in the medical field that’s not enough to be advertising. I can 100 percent tell a difference in my elbow with stability and strength and maybe it’s from the brace, maybe not. But I already had a surgery and it didn’t feel like this before, so I definitely think it’s playing a factor. So I feel awesome, man. I’m ready to go.”
The minor league season was cancelled and COVID-19 dictates everything, including whether baseball can safely implement fall instructional leagues, the Arizona Fall League and winter leagues.
“The timeline for everybody was kind of like, it’s not really worth it to rush back and maybe pitch in the last three weeks of September,” he said. “The plan was to pitch, actually, in the GCL (Gulf Coast League) in late August, early September, just to get some innings, which would have really been nice to face some competition and to be back on the field at the O’s facility, but again, with the circumstances and stuff ... So I don’t know what they’re going to do as far as the fall league or winter ball or anything like that. We haven’t gotten there yet.
“We’ve just been trying to check the boxes off as we go and complete every step of the throwing program, complete this mound phase, get through some live BPs, maybe get into a sim game and make that decision. If there’s a fall league I’ll probably be pitching in that, or if there’s a winter ball opportunity somewhere. I don’t know if they’ll let me do all that. Probably not. I’d like to face some live hitters, though, before coming into next spring.”
Pandemics don’t come with silver linings. True, Rogers wasn’t going to pitch much, if at all, in 2020, but he has his own questions about how the upcoming months are going to play out. If and how he’s going to be tested against actual batters.
If Rogers is going to dig around for something positive beyond his recovery, it’s how his conditioning is elevated by his new routine.
“This has definitely tested my patience, for sure,” he said. “I’ve been working out a ton, more than I ever have. It’s probably a blessing in disguise for me, honestly. Just to get me in the best shape I can be in and I’m not really missing much as far as on the field yet with the season being the way it is.
“I’m not pumped that the season has been a wreck, but for me personally it hasn’t been the end of the world. Literally, regardless of doing it here at home or down in Sarasota or up in Baltimore or wherever it would be, it doesn’t matter. There’s no chance of (games) anyway, so it worked out for me to be able to do exactly what I’m supposed to be doing while the season’s kind of on hold.
“I feel amazing right now. Dr. Meister did a great job and Kyle’s done a really good job building a program for me to come back stronger. We’ve taken our time. At the beginning I was like, ‘I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go, I’ve got to try to pitch next year.’ And they were like, ‘No, I don’t know if that’s going to be a thing.’ And then come to find out it’s actually worked in my favor to just, hey, we’re going to take the slow route and take our time. And now that I know I’m not trying to get ready for anything in the next two months, I can, not coast, but take my time and make really sure that my arm is 100 percent.
“I’ll definitely be back spring 2021 ready to roll.”