'Just happy to be back': Clevinger emotional in return from TJ

May 5th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Mike Clevinger naturally looks antsy on the mound. When he’s in the windup, he shuffles back and forth, kicking up his plant foot with each rock from side to side before beginning his pitching motion.

This week in Cleveland, Clevinger was a bit more restless than usual. He had been kept out of Major League action since Sept. 23, 2020, due to Tommy John surgery that offseason. But the funky righty returned to his former home to make his return to the mound in a 5-4 win for the Padres at Progressive Field on Wednesday.

The anticipation deepened when Clevinger’s slated start on Tuesday was postponed by severe weather, though his four-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland likely prepared him for the rain. Manager Bob Melvin said he’d have to start Clevinger in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader because he was “bouncing off the walls.”

“We got here on the off-day, and then had to get amped up the next day and then settle back down,” Clevinger said. “I was basically just staring at my hotel ceiling for hours last night, just waiting on this day.”

Clevinger called the emotions leading up to his start “a bit overwhelming.” But once he got to the bullpen -- where he passed his former teammate and good friend Zach Plesac for a pregame chat -- he settled back into that same routine he had when he was one of MLB’s best starters from 2017-20.

“Once I get on the rubber, it’s time to compete,” Clevinger said. “I’m a different person once I cross the line.”

Clevinger showed little rust from his long layoff. He struck out two batters and allowed only a walk to former Cleveland teammate and the AL April Player of the Month, José Ramírez, through the first two innings, using a four-seam fastball that touched 95 mph to set up his five-pitch arsenal for success.

However, it took Clevinger a few more pitches than hoped for to get through a contact-heavy Guardians lineup in the later innings. He needed 33 pitches to get out of a first-and-second, no-outs jam in the third with only a run coming across. Melvin seemed content to give Clevinger a chance to get through five innings despite the growing pitch count, but when he walked Ramírez again on his 95th pitch, the right-hander was lifted.

Two runs were charged to Clevinger after Steven Wilson relieved him, but the Padres’ offense stepped up to spot him two runs in the top of the sixth to put San Diego ahead for good.

Much of the start was vintage Clevinger. His average four-seam fastball velocity (93.5 mph) was only a tick down from his average in 2020 (95.1 mph). He had his standard five-pitch mix, but he put a variation on it: His changeup, which he threw only 8.3 percent of the time in ‘20, was his most used pitch (28 percent) alongside his four-seamer. Clevinger said he worked with Triple-A El Paso pitching coach Mike McCarthy to get the best grip and action on the pitch.

“It’s going to be a big pitch for him,” Melvin said. “It’s something he hasn’t really thrown before, but he took it out there in his first outing, got outs with it. You could see a little different reaction to it, because he hasn’t really thrown that before.”

When the game was over and Clevinger had time to reflect on it, he became emotional. His Tommy John surgery in 2020 was the second he’d had on his right elbow. Thankfully, there have been many recent success stories, including former No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon, but there have also been a lot of pitchers who haven’t made their way back to the big leagues after it.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to pitch again,” Clevinger said, “so this is big.”

Melvin knew just how big this moment was for his starter. In fact, he admits to letting “a little bit of sentiment” play into his decision to let Clevinger exceed the 85-90 pitch count they planned for him on Wednesday to face Ramírez.

Clevinger’s return to full health will be a big boost to a star-studded Padres rotation that will hopefully see Blake Snell, who rehabbed with Single-A Lake Elsinore on Wednesday night, return in short order. That means back-end starters like MacKenzie Gore -- who allowed one run in a career-long 5 2/3-inning outing in a 6-5 loss in extra innings in Game 2 -- and Thursday starter Nick Martinez are fighting for their spots.

But that’s for Melvin and his staff to consider in the coming days. For now, the Padres are excited to have one of their most exciting arms back, and he’s just as thankful for the team and their support through his grueling wait and triumphant comeback.

“Thinking about all the people who helped me get here, it just hasn’t been easy,” Clevinger said, “but I’m just happy to be back.”