The road back to the mound for James Paxton

May 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne's Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

BOSTON -- For , 765 days will have ticked off the calendar between Major League appearances when the lefty makes his long-awaited return on Friday night in what will be his debut for the Red Sox at Fenway Park against the Cardinals.

Paxton, who tore the ulnar collateral ligament in the second inning of his short-lived return to the Mariners on April 6, 2021, underwent Tommy John surgery a week later.

It normally doesn’t take over two years for a pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery. The standard recovery is 12 to 18 months.

But as Paxton rehabbed his elbow, a series of other annoying injuries piled up while he was trying to build back up for a stretch run return for the Red Sox in ‘22 that never materialized.

And the final dagger took place on his first start of this season’s Spring Training. Paxton was throwing 95 mph in his Grapefruit League debut against the Twins. An inning later, he suffered a right hamstring strain. There went his goal of starting the season on the Opening Day roster.

“It was hard,” said Paxton. “Because I was doing fantastic. I felt awesome, my body felt great. And then, you know, that happens. It was like, ‘Really, again?’ It was just like, ‘all right, let's do this. I know how to do this. I know what I’ve got to do.’

“It was either keep on going or hang up my spikes and I wasn’t going to hang up my spikes. I put my head down, got back to work and I’m really happy to be back in the place I am right now.”

The man known in baseball circles as “Big Maple” admits that there were times over the last two years when he wondered if he’d make it back.

“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” said Paxton. “I rehab my elbow, and then it was the lat, and then it was the hamstring, and it was like, ‘Is my body going to let me do this?’ I wanted it so bad. I just kept on going and putting one foot in front of the other.”

On Friday night, his feet will be planted on the mound of Fenway Park for what has been an elusive 138th career start.

“I was telling somebody the other day that it feels like my debut all over again,” Paxton said. “It feels like a really long road. But you know, being back where I am right now with this opportunity on Friday, it's all been worth it to get back out there.”

went through a similar road of repeated health setbacks. After a rocky start to the season, Sale has thrived in three of his last four starts. He is a resource for Paxton and a source of inspiration.

“It's been awesome to watch him and see him put it all back together and have success and look like himself again out there,” said Paxton. “And we've talked a little bit about it, and I've gotten some advice about how to handle it and kind of what it’s like to get back on the big league mound after so long.

“He told me, ‘Breathe.’ That was his advice, was to make sure you remember to breathe. It’s good advice. I'll definitely be taking that into the game with me on Friday.”