Skaggs poised to return from Tommy John

Left-hander has missed 19 months after surgery on left elbow

March 29th, 2016

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Recovery from Tommy John surgery can be every bit as lonely as it is lengthy. Sometimes, D-backs starter Patrick Corbin said, "It feels like the team forgets about you a little bit." And Tyler Skaggs was certainly leery of that. So he showed up to every home game last year, even though it certainly wasn't required, to be with his teammates, to speak with the coaches, to let the Angels know that he was still there, watching, waiting.

Skaggs' recovery lasted a full 19 months and carried with it an array of self-doubt.

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"It's a mental grind," he said. "I'm still doubting myself every now and then. I'll throw a bad bullpen and go, 'Man, is this ever going to feel the same? Is it ever going to be 100 percent? It's just one of those things mentally. You have to put it in the back of your mind and know that you're fine; know that you're OK."

The rehab is pretty much over now. Skaggs threw two sharp innings against the White Sox last Thursday and will pitch three innings of relief over the weekend, after a brief bout with the flu scratched him on Tuesday. The 24-year-old left-hander will start the season on the disabled list, but he should be ready for Major League competition before the end of April.

"There will be a little bit of a learning curve early on, but it shouldn't take him too long," said Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy, who also coached Skaggs with the D-backs.

"I have a feeling," general manager Billy Eppler added, "that everything will sharpen as he continues to distance himself from the surgery."

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Surgery took place Aug. 13, 2014, 13 days after that fateful night in Baltimore when Skaggs kept the Orioles hitless through 4 2/3 innings and then tore the ulnar collateral ligament of his pitching elbow. The months that followed included "a few [rough] days," Skaggs said -- but he had a key resource in Corbin.

Skaggs and Corbin came up together in the Angels' system and were packaged together in a trade to the D-backs, the one that brought Dan Haren to Southern California in 2010. They played catch together, charted pitches in the stands together, roomed together. Corbin had his surgery on March 25, 2014, and along the way, he leaned heavily on fellow Tommy John products like Daniel Hudson and David Hernandez.

When Skaggs underwent the same procedure five months later, Corbin wanted to provide the same support.

Corbin preached the importance of maintaining a workout regimen. He reminded Skaggs about all the pitchers who successfully overcame the surgery and told him to be patient. Skaggs had questions about how many bullpens to throw before Spring Training, how much upper-body lifting to do, why his elbow felt a certain way.

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By the middle of last summer, Corbin was back with the D-backs, and the two would exchange text messages after each of his starts.

That five-day schedule proved to be Corbin's final hurdle.

"I'd have a really good game, go out there and throw 80 pitches, and then it felt like it took my body a lot longer to get used to it," Corbin said. "That was the hardest part for me."

For others, the biggest challenge comes with temporarily losing feel for pitches. Skaggs experienced some of that. When he finally pitched from a mound again, the ball wouldn't come out of his hand well, and his arm would feel uncommonly sore the following day, especially when he started spinning curveballs. That's when he doubted the most.

He drew strength from his mother, a softball coach and disciplinarian who pushed him to work harder.

"She was definitely kind of hard on me," Skaggs said. "But then again, she kind of let me grow up as a man and figure it out myself. It was one of those things where I kind of had to grow up a little bit."

Skaggs began to emerge in 2014, adding some velocity to his fastball, making the rotation out of Spring Training and posting a 4.30 ERA through 18 starts. He's bigger now, his 6-foot-4 frame a little bit more filled out, and his delivery is smoother.

His hope for this upcoming season is "to stay healthy, and to make as many starts as I can."

"I know I have an innings limit," Skaggs said. "I know I have a lot of eyes watching me and making sure I'm OK. But at the same time, I want to go out there and prove to these guys that I'm good. I didn't get traded back over here for no reason, and I made the team as a 22-year-old guy. I feel like I'm pretty good."