PEORIA, Ariz. – Danny Hultzen can only watch.
In front of him, stretched down the foul line of Field No. 1 at the Mariners’ spring-training complex, his fellow pitchers play catch. It’s a daily ritual in pitcher’s life. There is talk, laughter and the repetitive pop of baseballs crisply striking leather gloves.
Dressed in his full uniform, glove on his right hand, baseball in his left and a hopeful look on his face, Hultzen stands on the side as a spectator.
It’s these little things that he misses. He’s played catch like this more than a million times in his life, and he’d give anything to make a it a million and one right now.
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But he can’t.
Not today, not tomorrow, not next month, not two months from now. There is no such thing as a random game of catch for someone recovering from a major shoulder injury.
But he believes.
He believes a year from now he will be back out there with his teammates, throwing a baseball pain free with pace and purpose without fear. He believes he will be a pitcher and a prospect again.
The lost season
On Oct. 1, Hultzen walked into the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Pensacola, Fla., for major shoulder surgery. A season of frustration and failed expectations had sunk to its nadir.
But at least Hultzen would have some concept of closure.
“He said, ‘Well, I can’t throw like this,’ ” his mother, Martha Martin, said.
How did it come to this?
It all started off as planned. In his first four starts with Class AAA Tacoma, he went 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22 2
3 innings pitched.
But as he warmed up for his start on April 25, Hultzen couldn’t get loose. The shoulder just didn’t feel right. A day later, after meeting with the Mariners’ medical staff, he was shut down.
After a lengthy rehab, he returned to the mound on June 27 at Cheney Stadium with general manager Jack Zduriencik in the stands. Hultzen pitched six scoreless innings against Las Vegas, allowing just two hits and striking out six.
It looked like he was back to normal. A call-up to the big leagues to help the Mariners’ struggling rotation wouldn’t be far off.
“We were all planning on that for the middle of the summer,” Zduriencik said.
But at their apartment that night, Hultzen told his roommate Brad Miller, “Something isn’t right.”
It led to another shutdown by the Mariners and yet another rehab stint where the Mariners wanted him to retool his mechanics, thinking they were the cause of the issue.
In September, he stepped on the mound in Tacoma. He pitched two scoreless innings for the Rainiers. He was slotted for a spot in the Arizona Fall League to build up his innings. And then …
“The end of September I threw a live (batting practice) versus the Mariners guys in Safeco,” he said. “That was awesome. But the next day after I couldn’t lift my arm very much.”
Mariners’ medical director Dr. Edward Khalfayan performed an athrogram on the shoulder using dye to enhance the MRI.
“He found that it all had the tears and everything,” Hultzen said. “That hit me pretty hard when he said surgery is probably likely.”
Hultzen went to visit renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion.
“He said surgery was definitely needed,” Hultzen said.
Andrews wouldn’t know the true extent of the damage until he went in with the scopes.
“Going into it, my feeling in my stomach was that it would be for the worse,” Hultzen said.
Andrews cleaned up damage to the labrum, repaired a partial tear to the rotator cuff and also had to repair a torn anterior capsule.
The last repair is the most serious. Pitchers have returned from partial tears to the labrum and rotator cuff, but only a few have returned from capsule surgery.
Hultzen rattles off the names of Mark Prior, Johan Santana and John Danks. Other players who had the surgery include Chien Ming Wang, Rich Harden, Dallas Braden and Chris Young.
Following the surgery, he was relegated to a sling to immobilize his arm. It was bulky and uncomfortable and there was throbbing in his shoulder. He stayed in Pensacola for a week in a hotel, and slept an in awkward, sitting-up position with the help of pillows. He’d look down at his arm trapped in that claustrophobic contraption, and his smile would fade.
“You’re thinking, ‘How am I going to ever throw a baseball again?’ ” he said. “There was a lot of negativity that went through my head, a lot of bad thoughts, like, ‘This is the end of my life, this is hopeless.’”
It was typical reaction of any person. But it was atypical to Hultzen’s upbeat, laid-back personality.
“He’s always been so positive, someone who kept his eyes on the horizon,” Martin said.
After six weeks, the sling came off and was discarded.
“Oh, I threw that thing away immediately,” he said.
Then began the grind of rehabilitation. Recovery was now his job. And it was there every day.
But Hultzen has attacked it with relentless optimism.
“He’s really been an inspiration to me,” Martin said.
There is no fixed date when Hultzen will return. He will not pitch in a game for the entire 2014 season. It’s a slow, lengthy process with minimal daily returns.
“I’ve talked to him about not worrying about what’s ahead, three months, six months,” Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said. “You can only focus on what you have to do the next day, and he’s been great about doing that.”
Five months after the surgery, Hultzen was able to start throwing. It was milestone in his recovery.
“It felt weird because there was no pain in my shoulder,” he said. “After we were done, we gave the celebratory fist pump that my arm was still there.”
It also made him realize how long the process will be.
Now he’s up to 65 feet and throwing with more pace. With each week the distance and time will go up incrementally. It can feel like Sisyphus with a baseball.
Hultzen has never taken baseball for granted. He’s always had the proper perspective toward the game.
“Playing baseball is a privilege,” he said. “I’ve always seen it as that. This is what I love to do and it’s my job, but I realize there are other things in my life besides baseball.”
But he isn’t ready for those other things.
“I realized how quickly things can be taken away from you like that,” he said. “You should take advantage of getting to play baseball.”
Will Danny Hultzen’s unflinching positive outlook and unyielding work ethic lead him back to the mound?
“I have no doubt he’s going to come back even stronger and be the powerhouse that he was,” fellow pitcher James Paxton said.
What about the odds, the others?
“If anyone can do it,” said Miller, “it’s him.”