The latest injury appeared like so many others in Hunter Harvey’s professional life. Without warning and with total disregard for what he’s endured since the Orioles drafted him in the first round and predicted greatness.
Harvey was working through his rehab assignment with Triple-A Norfolk after recovering from a strained right latissimus dorsi. The Orioles transferred him to the 60-day injured list on Sept. 7, a paper move to create space on the 40-man roster. He was eligible to return any time.
Except that paper move came with some fine print. Harvey no longer was listed as having a lat strain. He was out with a strained right triceps muscle.
Asked this week how it happened, Harvey replied, “That’s a good question.” He’s still able to maintain his patience and good humor while fielding them.
“I was just throwing,” he said. “It was never anything super painful. I told them, ‘I can pitch with it. It doesn’t feel great, but I think I can pitch with it.’ I said, ‘I might not be pitching at 100 percent, but I think I can pitch at 90 percent.’ And when I told them that, they said, ‘No, it’s not worth it.’
“At that point, they were getting to those last three weeks and they pretty much got to the conclusion of, why even push it now, since we’re not in a playoff race or anything like that. It just kind of came out of nowhere, just like everything else in every other year.”
The story grows crueler with each retelling, because there’s no cutoff to the number of pages.
The Tommy John surgery in 2016 should have been the end, after the flexor mass soreness and the line drive that fractured his shin, but other injuries ensued, and the triceps strain last month accounted for his third in 2021 alone.
The left oblique strain in spring training happened on one pitch to his first batter and cost him three months, with his season debut coming June 4. The lat strain happened on his final warmup toss in the bullpen in Houston. The triceps strain kept him off the mound after his fourth game with Norfolk on Sept. 1 and away from the Orioles since June 28.
“I threw some live BPs in Florida,” Harvey said. “I threw one live BP down there and I was 94-97 (mph) on a back field, and then I threw a game in Charlotte and I was 96-99, so everything was feeling great. I threw another one in Charlotte and it (triceps) kind of came up. It wasn’t super painful, but it felt like something was kind of nagging a little bit.
“I went in and got it worked on just to try to see if we could get it out of there. I pitched with it and it kind of stayed, wouldn’t go away. My velo, I wouldn’t say it really dropped, but instead of being 96-99, I was 94-97, so it maybe affected it a little bit. And it wasn’t as much that the stuff was getting affected as I thought about it more and it’s like I would lose focus a little bit.”
Harvey was supposed to enter the Astros game after that final warmup pitch, but instead slammed the ball in disgust and forced manager Brandon Hyde to rush another reliever and request that the umpiring crew stall.
“I don’t know where all it could have been coming from, but the more I think about it, coming back from the oblique stuff, I really pushed trying to throw the slider more,” Harvey said. “I was getting heavy on the slider stuff and I think just from not throwing it much in the spring to having the oblique and having three months off and coming back and trying something new with that slider, I think it just kind of aggravated it more than anything.
“I was throwing a slider in the bullpen when I felt that little grab in my armpit, and then kind of the same thing when I was coming back from the lat thing and the triceps started barking a little bit, it only really bothered me throwing the slider. So, I think just from pushing that slider so hard trying to make it work, because I think it will help my arsenal, I think I just wasn’t used to it. I hadn’t been throwing the slider for 10 or 12 years like I have the other stuff. So, I think it was just not being used to it.”
Harvey was back home in North Carolina this week, but only for a brief interruption to his hunting schedule.
“Been riding around,” he said. “Just got back from Ohio Sunday and I leave for Oklahoma in two days, so got some traveling to do. Just hunting trips. Stay busy.”
In between those moments when he asks why these injuries, so flukish in nature, keep happening to him.
“I’ve been wondering that for the last five years,” he said.
“The spring training thing, I’m about positive it had to do with a weight room thing. We tried a new core exercise, and then two days later, I blew my oblique out. So, it happened to be something that worked the oblique and I think it all adds up together, going from how I’ve never done that exercise to two days later I have a Grade 3 oblique strain. So, I think it just all kind of goes together. But I’ve been asking that question the last five or six years.”
A period of time that’s delayed Harvey’s major league debut until 2019, turned him from starter to short-inning reliever and restricted him to only 26 games and 23 2/3 innings. A natural reflex would be the kind of discouragement that can lead an athlete into a new profession.
What keeps Harvey moving forward?
“For me, it’s a game,” he said. “I get to play baseball for a living. There are a lot of other people in the world who aren’t as fortunate to play the game and a lot of other people who are struggling a lot more than me getting hurt. There’s people overseas getting killed. There’s just a lot more going on.
“For me, it’s more of a mindset that it could be way worse, I could be in a way worse situation than what I’m in getting hurt playing baseball. So, it just makes it a lot easier to bounce back.”
Perspective can be right in front of him. Like a teammate standing in the middle of the spring training clubhouse and sharing news of the cancerous mass in his colon and pending surgery and chemotherapy treatments.
“Even with Trey Mancini getting cancer, there’s just a lot of other stuff that’s way worse than an oblique injury,” Harvey said.
“For me, yeah, it sucks because I want to play. It just sucks that every year I’ve got an injury. But when you look at the bigger picture, there’s a lot of other stuff that could be going on that’s 10 times worse than what I’m going through. So, for me, it makes it real easy to come back and just keep going.”
There isn’t a way to guarantee that Harvey will remain healthy through camp and complete a 162-game season. Otherwise, he would have done it a long time ago. No magical solutions. No special set of exercises.
“I think a lot of it just comes down to how fast my body moves, and on top of that, I’ve got super-funky mechanics, and then on top of that, throwing a baseball the way we throw it is not a natural movement,” Harvey said.
“I mean, in 2019, which was probably my best year, I hired a new guy to work out with and I had a good year, and then the last two years (former strength and conditioning coaches) Joe (Hogarty) and Ryo (Naito) wrote up workouts. So, it’s not that we’re not doing anything or not doing the stuff they want us to try. We’re about to the point where we’ve tried about everything you can try.
“We’re going to keep trying to figure more stuff out. We finally get over the elbow stuff and then we start figuring out other stuff that doesn’t want to hold up. It’s just one thing after another, but I think eventually we’ll get it all figured out.”
Harvey turns 27 in December. He isn’t eligible for arbitration until after the 2022 season. Free agency comes in 2026, but there’s still a minor league option remaining.
The math can be as strange as the setbacks.
The Orioles don’t appear ready to move on from Harvey, the 22nd overall pick in the 2013 draft who projected as a No. 1 starter. And he remains confident that he’ll find a seat in next year’s opening day bullpen, the lowered expectations still keeping him in high-leverage situations.
“I know I can do it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of staying healthy. That’s the biggest thing for me. We’ve been talking about this for how many years now? But I know I can do it, I can pitch there. It’s just a matter of being able to stay healthy and pitch for a full season. It’s just a matter of getting my body to hold up long enough to achieve that.”
Harvey’s father, Bryan, a former major league closer and All-Star, provides a push when the legs and resolve weaken.
“It helps a lot,” Hunter Harvey said. “There have been times I wanted to hang it up and not keep doing it anymore, but he’s kind of talked me off that ledge a couple times, and he’s put that mindset in my head that it could be worse. It just gets to the point now, it’s like, we’ll get through this and start back over and try it again.
“We’ll keep trying it until no teams want to try it anymore or until I figure out how to stay healthy. That’s my two options.”