By Jarrod Harris
Times West Virginian
That’s all you’re feeling on the mound.
You know something isn’t right, but you’re trying to figure out what it is. Then you start questioning yourself: Am I getting tired? Do I have a pinched nerve in my arm? Did I lift too heavy in the gym today?
All questions unanswered, so you keep firing away. Pitch after pitch, strike after strike, until you rear up and throw a 96-mph fastball and then all of a sudden you feel a tingling sensation in the tip of both your index and middle finger.
“That’s when you know when to stop,” former Pittsburgh Pirates middle relief pitcher Jeff Wallace said following his injury in 1997. “When you feel the tingles in your fingers, it’s time to call it quits. Then the world starts to spin.”
For Wallace, he was just getting started in his professional career. He was a rookie pitcher out of Minerva, Ohio, who threw gas on a consistent basis, while hitting upwards to 97-101 mph. This star potential allowed for him to be the face of the Pirates’ organization for many years to come — or so he thought.
He remembers fighting through the pain, and that’s the biggest regret that he can fathom looking back with his days with the Buccos.
But why was the world spinning? Was it because he was in so much pain that it was intolerable to withstand? No — he was in shock.
Going from the top prospect in a team’s organization to wondering if he will get resigned again, because remember, back in 1997, the advancements in technology weren’t as “advanced” as today’s era.
The day his injury occurred? Sept. 19, 1997, against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I knew there was something wrong before I even walked out to the mound,” Wallace said Tuesday. “I didn’t have a good bullpen session, and my arm felt tight. I just thought I wasn’t loose or nervous or something. But I ran out to pitch like usual, and after a few pitches, I felt the pop and I knew. It’s a terrible feeling, a feeling like no other.”
As he was talking, he recalled blowing out his arm a second time with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which in return, ended his career. While talking, he put out his left arm and presented the scar from his bottom left wrist to his elbow. The procedure was quite unique, and the scar allows for Wallace to remember those pitches each and every day.
Though Wallace was dominant in the 119 innings he pitched (120 strikeouts) he was a culprit to a procedure called “Tommy John.”
So what is Tommy John? And how did it get his name?
“(The procedure) was created by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe,” Robert Lamb of “How Stuff Works” said. “Whether you’re throwing a baseball or a javelin, you put a great deal of stress on the elbow. Keep it up and the repetitious strain can lead to inflammation, microscopic tissue trauma and ultimately a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), also known as the medial collateral ligament (MCL).”
Lamb continues, “Imagine you have two boots and the lace on one breaks beyond your ability to repair it. The lace on your other boot, however, is in great condition and has plenty of length. Why not simply cut some excess lace from one boot and use it to mend the other?”
Surgeons take a tendon from the patient’s forearm and graft it into the elbow to replace the torn ligament. Of course, there are no holes for the “laces,” so the surgeon first drills a series of holes into the arm’s ulna and humerus bones. After these holes are completed, the tendon is weaved into a figure-eight pattern through the holes.
The holes allow for the ligament to stabilize within the interior of the arm, forcing the arm to heal back to the person’s original strength.
Though the procedure may seem complex, which it is, the rehabilitation is three times as difficult.
“Trying to rehab was very difficult,” Wallace said. “Imagine a dead arm trying to move again, and when you’re trying to move it, you feel sharp pains. When you pick up a baseball, it feels like a bowling ball — it’s heavy. Then, you have to fight through the mental aspect, ‘Am I going to hurt it again? Can I go through another surgery?’
“You have a lot going through your mind. It’s hard to overcome once, but even harder a second time.”
As we all know, the second time ended Wallace’s career — three years with the Pirates and a half of a season with the Devil Rays.
For pitchers all around the major leagues, they have to deal with the same situation as Wallace. They are fighting the odds of staying healthy and remaining on the mound.
On Monday evening, a fellow Pirate star, Jason Grilli, injured his right throwing arm against the Washington Nationals.
You could see the pain on his face, but the determination to fight through pitch after pitch, throw after throw. Like Wallace, Grilli tried to fight through the pain. Why? Because this was Grilli’s first legitimate shot at being a star in the major leagues.
The Pirates have placed National League saves leader Grilli on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm.
Grilli, who left Monday night’s game at Washington in the ninth inning with discomfort in his forearm, traveled to Pittsburgh Tuesday and will be examined by team doctors.
The All-Star right hander is 0-1 with a 2.34 ERA and 30 saves.
Manager Clint Hurdle said Mark Melancon (2-1, 0.97, two saves through Monday) will assume the closer’s role in Grilli’s absence.
Grilli is 36 years old; he’s bounced around the league with six different teams: Marlins, White Sox, Tigers, Rockies, Rangers, back to the Rockies, and now the Pirates. Since this was Grilli’s one shot, his one opportunity of being a closer for a team who’s on the brink of breaking a 20-year winning drought, Grilli wanted to pitch. He wanted to earn the save against the Nationals and get himself ready to throw again today, tomorrow, all the way through September and into October.
So far this season, the Pirates’ bullpen has pitched 341 innings, good for second-most in the majors. The group’s combined 2.77 earned run average also ranks as second-best in the league.
With pitchers like Justin Wilson (53.1), Tony Watson (47.2) and Melancon (46.1) all rank in the top 20 in the majors in innings pitched among relievers, while Grilli’s injury only adds concern to the possibility that such an active pen could face more depletion down the stretch.
So where does that leave the Pirates? The front office has three choices: move one of the starters to the bullpen when Wandy Rodrgiuez returns from his injury, make a deal for a reliever before the trade deadline at the end of the month or move another relief pitcher to the closer spot.
But who would be the odd man out? Charlie Morton? Gerrit Cole?
Cole would fit the mold the most over Morton since he’s a powerful right handed pitcher, but it just doesn’t fit, especially since Cole was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. You don’t waste a No. 1 pick as a closer.
Second option is to trade for a “dominant closer.”
So, that leaves the Pirates with option No. 3 — move another relief pitcher to the closing spot.
Names like setup man Melancon or Justin Wilson would likely slide comfortably into the closer’s role.
“Melancon sports a sparkling 0.97 earned run average thus far into the season and has two saves under his belt. He also recorded 20 saves with the Houston Astros several years ago,” Jared Stonesifer of Yahoo Sports said. “Even if he falters, Wilson, the anticipated closer of the future, could take over the role.”
Stonesifer added, “If Grilli has to sit for an extended period of time, the team has several in-house options to consider. But what pitchers will fill the roles vacated by Melancon or Wilson? What about the possibility of more relievers going down after being so overworked?”
Though everything may seem chaotic, who knows? Everything that was stated above about the arm injury and the chaos that the Pirates may have to face could be terminated fairly soon since Grilli took to Twitter stating his injury a “minor setback.”
But looking at his facial expressions on Monday night told many otherwise.
Email Jarrod Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JarrodHarrisTWV.