SAN DIEGO -- Is it finally time to begin dreaming on Dinelson Lamet again? Is it finally time to begin dreaming on what this already excellent Padres rotation might be able to accomplish with a healthy Lamet in it?
Deep breath. The answer is still complicated. Lamet’s return to the mound in Tuesday night's 2-1 loss to the Pirates at Petco Park was reason enough to be optimistic. But his two scoreless innings also offered a reminder that -- right now, at least -- the optimism should be tempered.
The Padres activated their electric right-hander from the 10-day injured list in time to start Tuesday, just about the best-case scenario they could've envisioned when Lamet exited his start two weeks ago with right forearm tightness.
Lamet clearly wasn’t at his best, and his fastball velocity -- typically in the high 90s -- fluctuated as the outing progressed. He allowed four hits. But here’s the important part: Lamet completed his scheduled outing with no outward signs of any arm trouble.
“I felt good, thankfully,” Lamet said. “The most important thing is that I felt healthy.”
Lamet threw 30 pitches, 21 of them strikes. He mixed in 11 sliders -- his signature weapon -- and got a customary handful of whiffs with it. If there’s one cause for concern from his outing, it’s the fastball velocity, which averaged 94 mph, down 3 mph from his 2020 average.
Afterward, Lamet and manager Jayce Tingler said they were relatively unconcerned about the velocity dip. Both chalked it up to Lamet’s two-week absence from the mound.
“That could just be a little bit rusty from not pitching,” Tingler said. “The main thing is that he felt good and strong coming out. So that’s ultimately a positive.”
Tingler noted that he expects Lamet to make his next start, though he didn’t set a date for it. It seems likely Lamet is in for a slow progression to a regular starter’s workload.
“Everything is a process,” Lamet said. “I’ll take everything day by day. But again, I felt good tonight, and I feel good right now, so assuming that everything checks out and I wake up fine tomorrow, then it’s a matter of outlining a plan from there.”
After sustaining a UCL strain last September, Lamet had been built up methodically and with extreme caution this spring. He only made his return to the mound to face the Brewers on April 21.
But Lamet exited that start when his forearm tightened. Considering his history of elbow trouble, it felt particularly ominous. Doctors had told Lamet last fall that by shutting it down when he did, he'd increased his chances of avoiding Tommy John surgery. But in his first start back, his arm was barking again.
Lamet won't escape those question marks any time soon. But his departure in that lone April outing wasn't quite the end-all some expected. For one, Lamet's forearm tightness didn't at all match the symptoms he'd experienced last fall.
“It was completely different from what happened last year,” Lamet said.
The Padres insisted this was merely a small setback -- the first of its kind -- for a pitcher who had been treated with extreme care over the past six months.
“As hard as he’s worked and the buildup plan that he’s had … we just wanted to make sure that he’s 100%, feeling good,” Tingler said. “We just kind of double-checked and [went] through that process, and he’s feeling really good now.”
At the time the Padres placed Lamet on the injured list, they had him resume his throwing program right away. He’s thrown at least three bullpen sessions over the past two weeks, and he has reported no effects of the injury (though he did battle through some minor neck soreness at one point, Tingler said).
Needless to say, a healthy Lamet would be a huge boon to an already thriving San Diego pitching staff. The Padres lead the Majors with a 2.79 ERA this season. In 2020, Lamet posted a 2.09 mark that stands as the best qualifying ERA for a starter in franchise history.
Atop the San Diego rotation, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove have lived up to the billing this season. But there are serious question marks at the back end. Adrian Morejon is out for the season following Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Chris Paddack is on the injured list for undisclosed reasons, and Ryan Weathers -- who relieved Lamet on Tuesday night -- experienced symptoms of dead arm in his most recent start last week.
Indeed, as good as the Padres' pitching staff has been, the back end of their rotation could certainly use a jolt. Hard to imagine one better than a healthy Lamet. They’ll keep their fingers crossed.