Feltner's fastball better than ever as he returns from skull fracture

September 20th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- Rockies right-hander  made his usual loping jog to the Petco Park mound on Tuesday night. He didn’t do much in the way of commemorating his return to the Majors some four months after sustaining a skull fracture on a line drive.

“I wanted to take a second before the first pitch,” Feltner said after taking a no-decision in the Rockies’ 2-0 loss to the Padres. “But the pitch clock was speeding up on me.”

So Feltner let his fastball mark the occasion.

During a nine-pitch at-bat against Padres leadoff man Xander Bogaerts, Feltner fired fastballs at 98.5 mph and 98.6 mph -- the two fastest pitches of a career that began with a callup in 2021. Feltner forced Bogaerts -- “A tough guy to have as your first at-bat back,” he said -- into a grounder to third base. It was the beginning of Feltner proving not only that he’s back, but possibly better.

The Rockies lost on Bogaerts’ ninth-inning, two-run, two-out homer off Tyler Kinley. But Tuesday will be remembered for the return of Feltner.

For the first two months after he was struck by a ball off the bat of the Phillies’ Nick Castellanos on May 13, Feltner said, he alternated between taking tiny steps toward vestibular health and, well, sleeping: “I was wiped out,” he said. 

It wasn’t until a month ago that he believed he could make it back.

Feltner’s parents, Laura and Derek, made the trip from Ohio, and he talked with them over breakfast. And there always is plenty of quiet clubhouse time for a starting pitcher.

“Just pregame, there was a little bit of reflection here at the locker before I started warming up,” Feltner said. “Even all day, talking to my family and friends and realizing that coming back -- that was the big win of today. To be able to do that [five scoreless] on top of it feels great.”

Wearing a thin, molded protective device in his cap, Feltner was so effective in striking out five and holding the Padres to two hits that manager Bud Black let him pitch through the fifth and throw 86 pitches - - a little beyond the expected limit of 80.

Feltner, 27, didn’t let initial adrenaline overtake judgment. During the time down, the always-cerebral Feltner noted that his fastball command wavered before the injury. He moved from the center to the first-base side of the rubber to create a better angle for his two-seam sinking fastball. He used two-seam and four-seam fastballs with off-speed pitches throughout.

“He had a good game plan going in with the pitching coaches and Elias Díaz,” Black said. “Those are some really good hitters at the top of the lineup.”

On the other side, Padres lefty Cy Young Award candidate Blake Snell held the Rockies hitless through seven innings of a then-scoreless game. The Rockies didn’t manage a hit until Brendan Rodgers’ leadoff single off closer Josh Hader in the ninth. Nolan Jones singled with one out, but Hader forced Díaz into a double-play grounder.

Feltner returned to the mound Sept. 1 with High-A Spokane and had three Minor League rehab outings -- one at Spokane and two at Triple-A Albuquerque.

The plan was for another Triple-A start, but pitching injuries -- the story of the Rockies’ season -- quickened the schedule. Since late August, Austin Gomber (back), Peter Lambert (right biceps tendinitis, but more accurately reaching his innings budget) and Kyle Freeland (oblique) have been shut down.

Feltner usually talked to rehab coordinator Scotty Murayama, who gave reports to pitching coach Darryl Scott. But when Feltner saw others going down, he called Scott and pronounced himself ready.

“It’s special when you see guys coming back from injury and know the work that they put in,” Scott said.

Returning for three starts at the end of this season eases Feltner’s mind going into the offseason.

“I didn’t want to just lay down and call it a season,” Feltner said. “I wanted to show that I have stuff in the tank, and I feel good.”