ST. LOUIS -- Amid the unknowns of baseball shutting down back in March, John Brebbia couldn’t ignore the pain he felt in his right elbow that eventually led to Tommy John surgery earlier this month.
On March 11, the day before Major League Baseball shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Cardinals were in Port St. Lucie, Fla., for an exhibition game against the Mets. Brebbia felt a pull in his elbow on his final three pitches: fastball, slider, slider. It wasn’t the excruciating pain that he thought came with ligament damage, so he exited and went home. But with the feeling still lingering the next morning, Brebbia met with Cardinals trainers.
As the Cards sorted out initial plans for their players and staff during the shutdown, Brebbia was undergoing an MRI, which revealed that he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament.
Instead of immediately undergoing surgery, Brebbia opted for a platelet-rich injection (PRP) the next week and was shut down from throwing for six weeks. As baseball’s shutdown endured, Brebbia began throwing again, but when he began ramping up the length of his long tosses and intensity of his effort, the pain re-emerged.
“I don’t know exactly how the doctors would describe what happened from the time of the injection to when I started throwing again, but I felt like it was awfully close to working,” Brebbia said. “But as I got further back and started to ramp up, there was pain and discomfort that creeped its way into the elbow until it got to the point I wasn’t throwing 100%. That was when we decided, ‘OK, let’s do the surgery.’”
Brebbia turned 30 years old two days before the operation that he underwent on June 1 -- not June 8, as previously believed -- in St. Louis with Cardinals team doctor George Paletta. Brebbia will miss all of the shortened 2020 season, as standard recovery from the surgery is one year. Because he’s a reliever, there’s a chance he could return in less than a year. Brebbia will spend the season on the injured list, and he will not count against the Cardinals’ 60-person limit for the roster as baseball gets underway on July 23 or July 24.
Brebbia waited before undergoing surgery to see if there was a chance he could pitch this year with the PRP injection.
“My return-to-play schedule doesn’t change whether I get the surgery at the end of March or June 1, like I did,” Brebbia said. “Either way, I would be ready to pitch for the 2021 season. Since we had a buffer, a chunk of time, we used that buffer to try the injection. Since it didn’t work, I’m mentally scrapping the competitive 2020 season and focusing on next year.”
Brebbia had a 3.59 ERA in 66 games in 2019 and struck out 87 across 72 2/3 innings. One of the candidates to close this year, Brebbia spent the past two seasons in the Cards' bullpen and he emerged as a setup reliever for the division-winning club toward the end of '19.
His 3.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio and fastball/slider combo made him an appealing candidate to handle the ninth inning as closer Jordan Hicks recovered from the Tommy John surgery that he underwent last June. In 161 games over three seasons with the Cardinals, Brebbia has a 3.14 ERA.
If Brebbia weren't the standard closer, he would have at least been a part of the closer-by-committee group this season, a handful of relievers that Cards manager Mike Shildt would deploy based on matchups and game circumstances.
There’s a chance that Hicks will be available to close as the delayed season unfolds. The Cardinals still have the pitching depth to fill that role, too, with relievers Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Andrew Miller and others who are capable.
Brebbia will stay in Florida for rehab this season, as he also seeks silver linings to his situation. His son, Henry, will turn 1 year old on Tuesday -- one day before players report to camp and two days before official workouts. So, Brebbia will be focusing on Henry’s party instead of getting ready for a workout in St. Louis.
“When the Cardinals play their first game and I’ve got it turned on the TV instead of watching it live, that will hit home a little bit,” Brebbia said. “No one ever wants to get hurt, and for it to happen this year, with everything else going on, it adds to the complexity.
“I’ve certainly been a little bit, probably beneficially, distracted from the injection and the surgery because of the coronavirus and how it’s affecting everything. With everything going on, it’s been distracting enough to where me getting Tommy John surgery feels like such an unimportant thing. But I’m pretty sure by the time the first game rolls around, I’ll be itching to get back out there.”