Pirates' Sadler savors return from Tommy John surgery
BRADENTON, Fla. — Six-hundred thirty days since he last pitched in a competitive professional baseball game, Casey Sadler was on a mound Sunday in the eighth inning for the Pirates against the Twins at LECOM Park.
Last week, Angel Sanchez pitched for the first time in 579 days.
Their long absences coincide with the 400-plus days Nick Kingham was shut down, or the 911 (and counting) days Brandon Cumpton has been waiting.
What the four share besides being Pirates pitching prospects is each had an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction performed in 2015.
The procedure is known as Tommy John surgery, which might be the three most feared words in sports — for a pitcher, anyway.
“It's tough when you get the news that you're going to be out more than a year and a half,” Sanchez said last week. “It's a job that you love, and you don't even know if you're coming back well from that. It's unfathomable the time you have to spend to get back to where you want to be, how hard you have to work and knowing you're not going to play until next year or next month. You have to have mental toughness and stay strong.”
As much as Tommy John surgery is feared, it can save careers. Some pitchers return to form, albeit after a wait of 12-16 months.
But when all the grueling and sometimes painful post-surgery work comes to fruition, the feeling can be extremely gratifying.
The Pirates already had two joyful returns this spring and are hopeful for another from Cumpton, who also had shoulder surgery.
Sadler allowed a single and had a strikeout in the Pirates' 4-3 win.
“It's great to get out there, another young man that has put in so much hard work,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “And he's had that small posse working with him. They are excited as they can be for him, (as they were for) Sanchez. It's going to give Cumpton added enthusiasm and optimism going forward. His is a little more complicated, two procedures versus the one.
“Casey came in. He threw strikes. He kept the ball down. ... It was fun to watch. Good for him.”
Sadler was the last of the four right-handers to have Tommy John surgery two years ago. Cumpton went under the knife in March 2015. Kingham was next two months later, followed by Sanchez in September and Sadler in October.
Kingham — once one of the Pirates' most prominent prospects — made 10 starts at three minor-league levels last season.
“Basically, I'm just like everybody else right here,” he said. “I'm 100-percent healed, and I'm out here fighting for a spot, just like everyone.”
Being slightly ahead of the other three, Kingham offers support and guidance to Sanchez, Cumpton or Sadler when needed. That is his way of paying it back after Jameson Taillon, who was finishing rehab from Tommy John surgery about the time Kingham started his, was a reliable support mechanism for him.
All lauded the efforts of A.J. Patrick, the Pirates' minor league rehab coordinator.
“A lot of the rehab process is trusting the guy who is working with you,” Sadler said. “A.J., I completely trusted him. He was informative, and he would always say, ‘This is why we are doing this. ... This is what the benefit is to it.' It's not just, ‘Here's the program. Go do it.' It was very hands-on. It made it a lot easier.”
As Taillon showed last year in making 10 dominant Triple-A starts and performing admirably in his first major-league action, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Kingham, Sanchez and Sadler are in the various early stages of finding out themselves.
“You know, it 100 percent all made it worth it, man,” said Kingham, who's made three Grapefruit League appearances this spring. “Just getting back and competing again at the highest level, it's really, really cool. After everything, I am definitely thankful to be back here.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter C_AdamskiTrib.