PEORIA, Ariz. — Down 2-0 in the count, Matthew Festa didn’t hesitate to turn to his best pitch.
Sure, it was just a minor league scrimmage Tuesday afternoon against the Padres on a back field, but this represented a situation he could certainly find himself in when he eventually returns to the big leagues.
The hitter, minor league veteran Webster Rivas, would be sitting on a fastball. Festa would show him his revamped slider instead.
Throwing it with full conviction, Festa’s 86-mph slider came out of his hand like it might hit the ribs of Rivas, who turned his body away from the plate to avoid getting hit. Instead, the baseball hung a sharp left a few feet from the plate, crossing over for a called strike.
Festa came back with another slider, this one with a little less break, but the same result. With a 2-2 count, Rivas fouled off a 92-mph fastball and then perhaps anticipating another slider, watched a 93-mph fastball split the plate for a called strike three.
Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, this is the new version of Festa that features cleaned up mechanics, increased fastball velocity up to 96 mph, a revamped slider and a knowledge of who he is as a pitcher and what he needs to do to get outs at the MLB level when he gets another chance.
“It feels good to be back and healthy,” he said. “I’m feeling a little different than I was the first time around. It’s a newer version of myself, a little better version, someone who kind of understands what type of pitcher I am.”
The road to this version started after he made his MLB debut July 14, 2018, at Coors Field. Called up from Class AA Arkansas to the big leagues, he made eight appearances in 2018 with varying success. The performances were similar in 2019 when he rode the shuttle from Tacoma to Seattle, making 20 appearances with a 5.64 ERA.
Festa started to understand he needed to make changes if he wanted to remain in the Mariners bullpen. His pitches were generating swings and misses just 10% of the time.
“I wasn’t missing barrels in the big leagues,” he said. “I had a lot of success in the minor leagues, but when you get to the major leagues, it kind of looks like they’re just swinging through the ball. You’ve got to just mix speeds up there. And if you can’t mix speeds, you better have a very big movement differential between your fastball and (breaking). My slider wasn’t generating a lot of swings and misses. So how we do get them?”
Festa needed more break from his slider, either vertical break or horizontal break. Given his arm slot and pitching strengths, he decided to change his slider.
After experimenting with several grips and using the advice from former Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter, Festa found one that worked.
“We basically took my curveball grip and turned the ball a little bit more toward the horseshoe,” he said. “It’s similar to the way Matt Brash throws his slider. We have a similar grip. Obviously, he throws 100 (mph). So it’s really cool out of his hand.”
But Festa found it to be very cool out of his hand the first time he tried the grip. The pitch had better, sharper break at the angle he wanted. He verified it by using the TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking software.
“I threw one and it was like: ‘That’s it. That’s the one I like and what I want,’” he said. “It was just understand what that feels like repeat it, repeat it again, repeat it again. The way I stay on top of it, I think about throwing a football with a slider. I lock into that grip, throw it with fastball intent and it all works out.”
But changing a pitch like that doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate success in games. Festa was still refining the pitch in 2019.
“I kind of figured it out toward my last major league outing in (July 21) 2019 against the Angels, but that was the last time I pitched in the big leagues.”
Festa took the new slider back to Tacoma and made 10 appearances to close out the 2019 season, notching three saves with a 1.26 ERA, with eight walks and 11 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings pitched.
“That was kind of like where it all clicked, and then I got hurt,” he said.
After elbow discomfort sidelined him early in spring training, Festa was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament March 2, 2020, which required season-ending surgery.
“It happened in the offseason of 2020 right around January,” he said. “I kind of maybe rushed a little bit more than I usually do. The soreness wasn’t going away. I knew something was a little different. But it wasn’t one single pitch or anything like that. It’s kind of just a combination of time and bad movement patterns.”
With the coronavirus epidemic (not yet pandemic) growing at alarming rates, Festa underwent Tommy John surgery, performed by Dr. David Altchek, the team doctor for the New York Mets, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.
It was one of the last elective surgeries before New York shut down the city because of the growing spread of COVID-19.
“When I got my TJ brace on March 11, New York City shut down; there were no more surgeries,” Festa said. “Noah Syndergaard was supposed to get TJ right after me, and he actually had to get it done in Florida because New York City wouldn’t allow it.”
With daily physical therapy not possible because of COVID-safety guidelines, Festa was able to go to HSS two days a week but the rest of his recovery was on his own.
“It was a very much a big struggle,” he said. “I basically built a home gym. I did all my rehab in my basement throughout the pandemic and kind of had to teach myself the TJ rehab on my own. I wasn’t able to have much contact one-on-one with trainers. I could only text them and do what I could, but it was a tough time.”
Festa was given a recovery packet to follow. And what he didn’t understand, he looked up for more information on Google searches.
“There’s so many resources on the internet these days, but I missed not having that one-on-one physical therapy with the trainer having eyes on me 24/7 as you normally would have in rehab,” he said. “I kind of just had to go off of what I felt. Did this feel good? Does this not feel good? It was definitely a grind.”
After a 15-month recovery process, which is the average length for Tommy John surgery, Festa returned to the mound July 15, 2021, in the Arizona Complex League. After two outings in Arizona, he pitched twice with High-A Everett before moving back up to Tacoma. He made 19 appearances for Tacoma, posting a 4-1 record with a 2.95 ERA. In 21 1/3 innings, he struck out 31 batters with just three walks.
“It was a lot of fun being back on the field and getting to use my new weapons, really showing the organization how thankful I am that they took the time to rehab me, take care of me and keep me in the organization during the rehab,” he said. “They could have easily let me go. I showed them that I still have the weapons that are useful in the big leagues.”