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CLEARWATER, Fla. – Something was amiss in the right arm of the highly touted pitching prospect.
He’d felt something pop in his last start but pitched through it. When the pain didn’t subside, he reluctantly went to the Phillies training staff, which ran him through a battery of tests. Three dreaded letters – UCL – were included in the diagnosis. But they came with hope, that maybe, with rest, reconstructive surgery could be averted. It would effectively cost him the rest of his season, but that was the price of letting the body heal.
That’s not a recap of the drama that has befallen Andrew Painter the last two weeks. It’s a recap of what Aaron Nola endured in 2016.
Then as now, a pitcher freighted with the expectations of a franchise suffered a sprain to the ulnar collateral ligament. Then as now, the prescription was rest to hopefully avoid Tommy John surgery.
Then, the plan came to fruition, and 1,000 innings, Cy Young votes in three seasons and a National League pennant later, that elbow is attached to one of the National League’s most durable workhorses.
The question is if Painter has the fortune to follow that trajectory. At least, he’ll have Nola’s lesson to learn from, one the vet is eager to share and the youngster is receptive to.
“I came up to him when it happened a week ago and asked what he had,” Nola said last week at BayCare Ballpark. “I heard he had something in his elbow, and he said he had a partial tear. We kind of talked about what I got done, the process that I went through.”
“This is a common thing,” Painter said. “Other people have experienced this. They know what we’re doing is right.”
No two ligament injuries are identical. A diagnosis of a mild strain, as both issues have been characterized, covers a sizeable range of stretching or tearing.
Nola was 23 and in his second season in the big leagues when he was shut down in August 2016. He had made 20 starts before hearing a pop in what he had hoped was his triceps against Atlanta. At 111 innings and the Phillies nowhere near playoff relevance, he was set to soon hit his innings limit anyway.
So he basically got a head start on his offseason program. What started as four weeks of rest became eight, with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection to speed healing. He resumed throwing in November, shut it down for the year in December and was ready to go in the spring of 2017.
In fact, his rehab forced him to re-evaluate parts of his delivery, reworking a longer stride and more prominent leg drive. In five non-pandemic seasons since, he’s never failed to make fewer than 27 starts.
“Spring training 2017 was like a new pitching form, which was kind of cool,” Nola said. “I learned how to use my legs in that aspect of getting hurt. For me, it was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t want to get hurt, but it taught me some things.”
Painter is different in many respects. He’s younger (19), taller (6-foot-7) and a more powerful pitcher. He’s also at the beginning of a season loaded with expectations instead of playing out the string on a meaningless one, which creates pressures that the Phillies will have to suppress for the long-term good of their top prospect and the sixth-best prospect in baseball. Painter’s assessment doesn’t include a PRP injection, and he’s already done one of the four weeks of down time. But a 19-year-old might heal differently than Nola, with all his college innings, did.
What Nola senses is the same is a desire to avoid surgery and its year-long recovery.
“Nineteen-year-old bodies heal a lot quicker than 29-year-old bodies nowadays,” Nola said. “I pray for him, I hope everything works out, hope he doesn’t have to get surgery, hope he heals really quick and it’s nothing super big.”
“Obviously I want to be healthy and stay on the mound,” Painter said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a long season, 162 games, and you want to be there at the end when it really matters.”
If the Phillies are looking for blessings, the first would be to avoid going under the knife, a procedure that has hit Rhys Hoskins (non-throwing arm), Bryce Harper and Seranthony Dominguez in recent years. But the other, if Painter needs just rest, is that the clock on what should be a tight innings restriction won’t start in April, meaning he could be available for a pennant race or postseason run. Painter threw 103.2 innings in his first full pro season.
Whatever happens with Painter, Nola sees his interactions with the young hurler as signaling a change in his career. With Zack Wheeler (Tommy John in spring 2015, costing him two full seasons), he’s one of the vets in the room. Wheeler was the one who invited Painter and Bailey Falter to move their Clearwater lockers next to his.
Nola reminisced Friday about the guys who guided him in clubhouses of yore – Cole Hamels briefly, plus Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang when Nola was promoted in 2015.
He’s now that guy for Painter and his generation of young arms.
“When I was young, we had a really good crew with those guys, and they were really approachable and I loved being around them,” Nola said. “That’s one thing I wanted to be when I was older, was be approachable to the young guys, because this game is hard. I remember how nervous I was those first couple games when I got on that mound in 2015 and the guys I could talk to. …
“Wheeler and I, we were in those guys’ shoes at one point, and we know how it is and we know the process of it and there’s going to be ups and downs and struggles. But you’ve got to learn from those struggles, and you can’t get down on yourself. It’s going to happen. So you’ve got to want to take that failure to success. You can’t shy away from it, because it’s going to happen.”
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