Braves ace Kris Medlen got expected news Monday when doctors confirmed the need for a second Tommy John surgery, ending his 2014 season before it ever began. (Reuters)
KISSIMMEE, Fl. — Braves pitcher Kris Medlen drove to Pensacola, Fla. Monday to see Dr. James Andrews, expecting to have to undergo a second Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow, and that’s what he’ll do.
Andrews confirmed that Medlen tore his ulnar collateral ligament again and operated on Medlen for the second time in less than four years early Tuesday afternoon. Instead of pitching Opening Day as he was projected to do, Medlen’s season is over, and now he’ll begin the fight to prolong his career.
“The news is obviously very tough, but I knew when I walked off the mound mid-inning (on March 9) what I had felt,” Medlen said in a text message Monday afternoon, afraid he might get emotional in a phone call. “The love and support I’ve felt from my family, teammates — they go hand in hand — the Braves organization, and Braves fans everywhere really means the world to me and will definitely help me through all this.”
Medlen was joined on his visit to see Andrews by Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy, who is facing his own prospects of undergoing a second Tommy John surgery. Beachy had to leave a spring training game against the Phillies after only two innings the day after Medlen walked off the mound against the Mets, and tests revealed more ligament damage.
Beachy is headed to Los Angeles to seek another opinion on his right elbow ligament from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, a team orthopedist for the Dodgers and protégé of the late Frank Jobe, the pioneer of Tommy John surgery. ElAttrache has operated on the likes of Zack Greinke, Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady.
The Braves expected Beachy to seek out further evaluation.
“I think it’s natural for guys to want to exhaust every possibility before they ultimately make that decision that ‘I’m going to have surgery,’” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “Sometimes these decisions aren’t black and white. There’s enough gray that they want just another set of eyes and another impression on what’s being seen.”
Beachy, 27, would be facing his second Tommy John surgery in 21 months, while only returning for five starts last season before being shut down with lingering elbow pain. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to have a bone chip removed from his elbow last September. But Beachy continued to have elbow soreness when he ramped back up this spring.
Medlen, 28, pitched two full seasons on a repaired ligament in 2012 and 2013.
Both pitchers have proven they can pitch with the best of the National League when healthy. Beachy was leading the league with 2.00 ERA and had a majors-leading .171 opponents’ average in 13 starts before his first Tommy John surgery in June of 2012.
The Braves won 23 consecutive regular season games Medlen started — a major league record — dating back to before his first Tommy John surgery Aug. 18, 2010. By the time the winning streak ended in April of 2013, Medlen had established himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Medlen was the pitcher the Braves turned to to start a one-game wild card playoff against the Cardinals in 2012 and he was their Game 1 starter for last year’s division series against the Dodgers.
Only through this injury, though, has Medlen realized the full extent of the appreciation fans around the majors have gained for him.
“The part that blew me away this past week were the comments and outreach that I received from other organizations, opponents, and the fans of baseball around the league,” Medlen said. “The same fans that curse at me while warming up in the opposing stadiums reached out and let me know that they appreciate the way I play the game and that is just an unbelievable feeling.”
Medlen will use that emotion and support to buoy him in his comeback.
“I approach this process with the same drive that I’ve had my entire life and will do everything I can to come back from this ‘thing’ twice,” Medlen said.
The odds are long. Andrews has projected only a 20 percent success rate for pitchers undergoing a second Tommy John surgery to return to their pre-surgery form. That percentage is higher for relievers than starters.
Medlen has a reliever in his own locker room that he’ll be watching closely as he attempts his own comeback from a second Tommy John surgery in reliever Jonny Venters. Venters, who has begun throwing off a mound, is still two or three months from returning to game action.
Venters looks to pitchers like Brian Wilson, Chris Capuano and Joakim Soria, who had made it back from two Tommy John surgeries.
Now he’s found himself as encourager to Medlen and Beachy.
“I told them to stay positive,” Venters said. “Nothing else you can really do. Whatever happens, you just go at it as hard as you can. Whether it’s rehabbing, if you get the surgery, stay positive and work as hard as you can and see what happens.”