Relievers Steve Cishek and Tony Zych are still in the process of recovering from offseason surgeries
PEORIA, Ariz. — As the Mariners’ pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout on Wednesday morning, two key relievers in the organization will be limited in their participation as they recover from their respective offseason surgeries.
Right-handers Steve Cishek (hip) and Tony Zych (shoulder) are still in the process of building back to full strength and will operate on different schedules from their fellow pitchers. The Mariners knew this coming into camp and understand there is a real possibility that neither is ready to go by opening day.
“Tony is going to be behind and Steve is as well,” manager Scott Servais confirmed. “Steve isn’t out playing catch too far yet. So it’s getting his legs underneath him and feeling good about his lower half while throwing. He’s just working into that. I believe last I heard, Tony is out to 105 feet and just gaining arm strength. Tony probably won’t get out and throw a bullpen for a little while. They are the only two we have limitations on right now.”
Cishek has a slotted role in the bullpen as the eighth inning set-up man to closer Edwin Diaz. It’s a role he had success in late last season after losing his closer’s job. Cishek pitched through pain in his left hip and groin area for much of last season while trying to avoid the disabled list.
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“In my head, if I’m going out there to pitch, I have confidence I can get the job done,” he said. “I wasn’t making any excuses. But it got to a point to where it was hurting pretty good. My groin would just keep grabbing and I couldn’t get through my delivery. I was throwing all arm. It got to a point to where I was hurting the team pretty bad so I decided to throw in the towel.”
After a disabled list stint and a cortisone injection, Cishek came back and posted a 1.10 ERA in 18 appearances, striking out 14 batters in 16 1/3 innings pitched.
“When I came back after I had the cortisone shot, and doing some therapy stuff, that helped out a ton,” he said. “I was able to use my legs for the remainder of the season. It also helped when I came back off the DL and kind of knowing I was going to get the surgery done. We were talking about it, and in my head, I was going to do it. It made it a lot easier for me. I was like, ‘If I’m going to get this done, I’m just going to blow it all out and see what happens.’ I used up everything.”
But when Cishek underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum, the procedure became a little more invasive. Dr. Thomas Byrd decided to not only repair the labrum but also perform microfracture surgery in the hip.
“Yeah, I went in for labrum surgery and came out with microfracture surgery,” Cishek said. “It was a little more extensive. It set me back a little bit, but it shouldn’t put too much more time on my recovery. It would have taken me four to six months even if it was just labrum surgery. “
Cishek spent the next two months on crutches. He wasn’t allowed to put any weight on the leg. It was a less than ideal situation with his wife, Marissa, having their second child five days later.
“My wife had three kids to watch — me and my two daughters,” he said. “She had a lot of patience with us. It was tough, especially on her. Basically, I would go rehab and come home and I’d have the game-ready ice machine on my hip for a good three hours and just lay around. I tried to help out where I could on one leg around the house. That’s all way I was able to do.”
An active person normally, he went stir crazy being relegated to the couch.
“It’s amazing how you take the little things for granted,” he said. “I’m not a big TV watcher. I watched a lot of HG (Home and Garden) TV. I think I’m ready to start flipping houses.”
He had special plans for the crutches when he was finally cleared to walk.
“They are still in my office,” he said. “I was going to donate them, but I just forgot. I wanted to do a video and take them trap shooting with my buddy. I’d say, ‘Pull!’ and have him wing them out into the sky and I’d blast them. But we didn’t go that far.”
The official recovery time for Cishek’s surgery is 4-6 months. He just hit the four-month mark this past week.
“I feel good,” he said. “There are some days where you get sore and tight. But that’s what the trainers are for, they work on it. I came in tight yesterday and I got one of the trainers to dig in there and I feel great today. It’s hit or miss.”
Full baseball activity isn’t quite an option yet.
“Right now, I’m mainly in the weight room for two to three hours a day doing a bunch of warm up exercises and strengthening for my left hip and it’s just getting my left leg as strong as my right leg,” he said. “I was on crutches for two months. I lost a lot of strength. It’s a matter of getting that glute strength back that way it’s able to help stabilize my joint and that will take away a lot of the achiness I get day to day.”
While the hope was that Cishek might be ready for opening day, the timeline seems to be pointing more toward mid to late April.
“That was the goal originally,” he said. “But I’ve never had had surgery before so it might have been a little lofty. That’s still the goal and I’m just going to keep pushing myself if my hip allows it. Who knows? The sooner then better obviously.”
But there is point where pushing too hard leads to diminishing returns.
“I just have to be smart about it,” he said. “People that know me, once competition starts, I get pretty stupid. Obviously, I didn’t say anything during the season and I just kept dealing with it. But this time around., I have to be smart about it. I’d rather pitch the majority of the season instead of starting too early and getting hurt again. I just need to be smart and listen to what the trainers are telling me.”
Zych is further along in his recovery from shoulder surgery. He will start throwing out to 120 feet every other day in the next week as he builds strength. He will then go to two days throwing and one day off.
After a strong end to 2015 and making the team out of spring in 2016, Zych could feel something wrong in the shoulder/bicep area early in the season. He struggled to to recover after throwing in the days after making an appearance.
“It was completely frustrating,” he said. “I felt good on the mound. The bad part is when I was out there, my results were good, per se. Then I just didn’t feel great after and couldn’t recover well. It was just a frustrating process. I felt like I was letting the coaches down by not being able to get out there every day and some of the players. It was rough to go through, being my first full season. I just wanted to help the team.”
“Toward the end there when I just wasn’t recovering at all and got sent down, it just wasn’t feeling right from really the first game I was up there,” he said. “It honestly just didn’t feel good. I realized then I was going to need to go through a little longer process and get it better.”
He was shut down for the rest of the season and underwent surgery on Oct. 11 in New York with Dr. Stephen O’Brien performing the procedure.
“The easiest way to say it is bicep tendon transfer,” Zych said. “They took my long head out of my joint and tied it into my short head. The way I say it is I have a ‘unicep’ now and not a bicep. It was all scope. Honestly, they just took it out of the groove. I was having a lot of pinching going on. That’s why I was having a hard time recovering. When I’d lift it up, it would pinch right away. So I could just never get on track, so that was really frustrating. But I feel great right now. I’m really optimistic.”
While Zych hopes to be throwing off the mound in two-to-three weeks and pitching in Cactus League games by the end of spring, he won’t rush the recovery. He made those mistakes last season.
“When I decided with the doctor to get the procedure, I said that day I’d do it right and do it slow,” he said. “It’ll tell me how it’s feeling and how it’s going. Everything so far has been outstanding. I’m in a good groove right now and I think I’ll be at 120 (feet) the next time I throw. So the progression is moving along well, but I don’t want to have any setbacks like I had last year. So I’ll definitely be really responsive to how I feel.”
With the Mariners bullpen maybe having one open spot, it is likely that Zych could start the season in Class AAA Tacoma. But if he can come back to full strength, his high 90s fastball and power slider will lead him back to the big leagues during the season.