WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- While Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. isn’t sure when he will return to the mound this year, he said Tuesday morning his arm injury isn’t related to the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the 2019 season and he doesn’t believe he’s headed for surgery.
McCullers injured the flexor tendon in his right arm during his Game 4 start of the American League Division Series last year against the White Sox, and it hasn’t healed as quickly as he would have hoped. He won’t be ready to start the season in the Astros' rotation in three weeks and wasn’t even cleared to throw as Spring Training got underway this week.
“It’s extremely frustrating, because I want to be there for the team and I want to be able to pitch,” he said. “I had a really great season, and I was looking to continue to build off that. I was hoping this year to come in and compete for a Cy Young with my locker mate [Justin Verlander] and now, I’m rehabbing again. It’s frustrating in that sense. I feel a responsibility to the organization and to the fans to be out there and pitch, and that’s weighing on me as well.”
The veteran right-hander, who signed a five-year, $85 million contract extension last year, went 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts in 2021, reaching career highs in wins, starts, innings pitched (162 1/3) and strikeouts (185). He was pulled after allowing one run in four innings in Game 4 of the 2021 ALDS due to the discomfort in his forearm.
McCullers rested his arm in the offseason then had a setback as January turned to February, a period of time in which he could not have contact with Astros medical personnel because of the lockout. He was examined by Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache and another doctor in Houston, both of whom said it was a tendon issue and not a re-injury of the ulnar collateral ligament.
Both doctors recommended McCullers go through platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections – taking plasma from your blood and using its healing properties to treat an injury -- and stem cell therapy --- in which stem cells are retrieved from bone marrow and injected into the injured area to help form new cells. McCullers said surgery hasn’t been discussed.
“Not yet. Not right now,” he said. “We haven’t spoken about that yet. We’re all pretty confident this will resolve itself. We’re not going to cross that bridge unless we absolutely have to.”
Still, McCullers figures to be out at least well into April considering he’ll need to start his throwing program from scratch and build up his pitch count once he’s cleared medically. That’s a process that could take several weeks, if there aren’t any more setbacks.
“I’m going to have a good amount of rehab here for at least a couple of weeks and we’ll kind of see the next steps,” he said. “I have to do a building-up process and the whole thing.”
For now, McCullers is working on his upper body and trying to actively build towards a throwing phase. Not being able to be get on the mound and compete, especially coming off his best season in the pros, hasn’t been easy, and he wants the fans to know he’s eager to pitch again.
“Being in this locker room and wearing this jersey and representing this city has been the greatest thing I could have asked for,” he said. “That’s why when I say I feel like I have a responsibility, I want to be out there. I know the fans are frustrated, but no one more than me. Maybe my wife; she has to deal with me every day. She’s getting tired of me, I think. I’m trying my best, I promise. I want to be out there every day.”