Festa making case for spot in big league 'pen

March 9th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As the world was on the brink of the unknown, Matthew Festa faced his own individual uncertainty. The date was March 10, 2020, the location was the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and the patient was the right-handed Mariners reliever, who, little did he know, was undergoing the facility’s final Tommy John surgery for the foreseeable future.

One day later, HSS closed its doors due to a city-wide lockdown in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Festa’s surgeon, Dr. David Altchek, is the medical director for the Mets, and Altchek couldn’t even perform the same procedure for New York’s former pitching star, Noah Syndergaard, who also needed TJ and had to travel to Florida for the procedure. 

“It was a very much a big struggle,” Festa said of the timing. “I basically built a home gym. I did all my rehab in my basement throughout the pandemic and kind of had to teach myself to TJ rehab on my own.”

Festa walked out that day with a new elbow, but also with a mountain of uncertainty. With lockdown restrictions across the country, Festa’s recovery from TJ -- one of the most mentally-taxing in sports -- was quite literally in his own hands.

“I was just alone by myself, just trying to teach myself what the pieces of paper said,'' Festa said of his doctors’ instructions. “They give you a packet, and there’s so many resources on the Internet these days. But I think the thing I missed the most was having that one-on-one physical therapy with the trainer having eyes on me 24/7 as you normally would have in rehab. And I kind of just had to go off of what I felt. ‘Did this feel good? Did this not feel good?’ And it was definitely a grind for sure.”

Fast forward nearly two years to the day, and Festa is not only back on the mound but making a case for the Mariners’ big league bullpen in 2022. His fastball, which averaged 92.6 mph and topped out at 95 mph in ‘19, his most recent year in the Majors, has hit 98 mph in this Minor League Spring Training. He also has a new grip on his slider that he installed last year at Triple-A Tacoma and is missing more bats.

He’s not necessarily an overhauled pitcher, but rather, a more polished one.

“When you get Tommy John surgery, it's not usually because your elbow has given out,” Festa said. “It's more or less like you stopped moving well, and the TJ rehab is so long, not because the elbow needs time to rest, but it's that you’ve got to figure out how to move again.”

Festa’s recovery took 15 months, and it culminated with a two-month stint last year at Tacoma, where he compiled a 2.95 ERA and 31 strikeouts over 21 1/3 innings across 19 outings, exclusively in relief. His favorite stat? Just three walks to the 86 batters he faced, which caught the eyes of a front office that values strike-throwing ability above all.

“They could have easily let me go,” Festa said of the Mariners. “But I showed them that I still have the weapons that are useful in the big leagues, and I had a ton of success there attacking the strike zone. ... I got basically half a season, and I was very fortunate that they took it easy on me in the beginning. And then, we took the training wheels off and it was full send and I felt real comfortable.”

A seventh-round pick in the 2016 Draft, Jerry Dipoto’s first as GM in Seattle, Festa has 28 games of experience in the Majors, with a 4.70 ERA and 93 ERA+ (league average is 100) in 30 2/3 innings. Most of those outings were in ‘19, when the club embarked on its stepback and had a revolving door of relievers all season.

Festa hasn’t returned to the 40-man roster since, but given the volatility of bullpens necessitating regular reinforcements, his uptick in stuff and that he’s utilizing the face time with the Major League coaching staff in Minors camp, there’s a strong possibility he’s back in the big leagues at some point in 2022.