Tuivailala is at Mariners spring training in Arizona and has been running, lifting and throwing — but not off a mound yet. “We’re ahead of schedule, but that doesn’t push up the return date," he said.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Sam Tuivailala didn’t need to see the replay. But those who were helping him recover from that season-changing day on Aug. 8 last season felt it was necessary as part of their assessment.
So the highlight from MLB.com was loaded onto the screen and Tuivailala got to relive one of the worst moments of his career. In the sweltering afternoon heat of Arlington, Texas, Tuivailala delivered a nasty fastball in on the hands of Elvis Andrus for a weak ground ball to third baseman Kyle Seager. Rougned Odor, the runner on third base, broke for home. Seager fired to catcher Mike Zunino, and Odor was caught in a rundown.
What followed won’t be used for an instructional video in rundown defense. Zunino fires the ball back to Seager as Odor retreats for third. But Seager isn’t quite fast enough to tag Odor as he reverses and heads to home. Tuivailala, who covered home, enters the fray. Seager throws a little prematurely toward home to Tuivailala, allowing Odor to spin and retreat to third.
A solid athlete and a converted shortstop, Tuivailala catches the ball and sprints after Odor. He’d end this, but an awkward step leads to a pop and a searing pain in the back of his right leg. He manages to flip the ball back to Seager. The out is eventually recorded when Andrus comes around to third, forcing Odor out.
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Afterward, Tuivailala remained on the grass in pain. His Achilles tendon had ruptured. His season was over after five outings with the Mariners. Acquired at the trade deadline in July, he had settled in and appeared to be an important reliever in middle to late innings.
Instead, he was facing surgery and months of recovery.
“I was starting to find my groove a little bit, but it’s one of those things you can’t prevent,” he said. “It just happens. I’m looking forward to next time I get to go back out there. I’m excited for the season.”
There’s a wince and an awkward smile when asked about what he saw in the replays.
“I watched it a couple of times in my rehab facility,” he said. “They wanted to see it. It’s weird watching it. But I definitely remember what happened and how it felt. It’s something you can’t forget.”
He underwent surgery to repair the tendon a few weeks later. A long grind of recovery and rehab awaited him.
“I was on crutches for maybe about a month,” he said. “And then with the cast and a boot, I had to use a knee scooter for the first time. All that stuff was probably about a month and a half. It definitely just sucked. You are so used to being able to do your normal stuff for your daily routine. But you can’t.”
Normal stuff, like taking a flight somewhere and having to navigate through a crowded airport.
“I was crutching through airports, and that was not fun,” he said. “I had too much pride to take one of those carts that people utilize. I thought, ‘Nah, I don’t need that.’ But crutches aren’t fun. I didn’t want to get babied at the airport, but if I could go back, I’d take that offer.”
So where are the crutches and boot?
“I threw those away,” he said. “I didn’t want to see them ever again.”
There were more than a few days that left him frustrated at the slow increments of success.
“Like I tell everyone else, it’s a humbling experience, going through the rehab,” he said. “I’m happy now, when I look back at the journey and think about how everything has come along right now.”
Besides the zipper of a scar on the back of his right leg that is usually covered by long spandex tights, it’s difficult to know that Tuivailala is recovering from such a significant injury. He walks normally. He was in full uniform for the first workout Tuesday. He did the warmup and played catch. But when the pitchers move to drills that require running or cutting or throwing off the mound, he’s on the side watching or doing his own rehab work.
“I’m able to do a lot, but they want to be on the cautious side,” he said. “There’s no reason to push myself to a degree where there could be a setback. It’s probably not worth it. I’m lifting and throwing and running on the treadmill. We just have to work out the little cuts and everything. We’ll slowly get into that. For the most part, there’s not a lot of limitations, but we want to be cautious about some things.”
But it’s the chance to throw off a mound again that he’s most eager for.
“I’m looking forward to doing bullpens,” he said. “So whenever that comes up, I’ll be excited. So far everything has been good. Everything is pointing up. I’m happy with how everything is turning out.”
The initial hope was that Tuivailala could return in mid-June, about 10 months after the surgery. That hasn’t changed.
“We’re ahead of schedule, but that doesn’t push up the return date or anything like that,” he said. “Everything has been going good. It’s just a day-by-day process right now.”
Given his talent — a high-90s fastball and power slider — and the Mariners’ pieced-together bullpen, he has an opportunity to elevate his role once he returns. The team believes he has the sort of stuff and makeup to be a late-innings reliever in their step-back plan for 2020 and beyond. He hasn’t even considered it.
“You can’t look at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “That’s still too far for me. I have to worry about what I have right now. I think the whole offseason I took it day by day. I’m not worried about the return date. I’m just worried about it getting it stronger and getting ready for whenever I can.”