Jake Rogers can head into the holidays grateful that the Groundhog Day that was his recovery from Tommy John surgery is over. But one small part of his routine lives on.
While Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo and Matt Manning were pitching their way into the Majors, Rogers -- their catcher for most of their path up the Tigers' farm system -- woke up each morning in Lakeland, Fla., and tackled his rehab at the Tigers’ Spring Training facility. But before checking his rehab schedule, he had another routine: Like many people over the past year or so, Rogers became hooked on Wordle. Unlike many, he looped in his long-distance teammates.
“We kind of have a competition with Wordle,” Rogers explained last week, “actually since last Spring Training. It gives me an excuse to talk [to them] every day. I can’t believe we’re still playing it.”
Rogers can’t remember how it started. Probably, like many baseball rituals, it began as a way to break up the monotony of Spring Training. Then they began texting each other how many guesses they needed to solve each day’s word. Then, of course, the competition started.
“I get ticked off more than I’m happy,” Rogers said. “I can finish it every time. I think there’s only been two times I haven’t gotten it at all. I can finish it, but I’m too competitive to be happy.”
Yes, he’s competitive enough to keep score. He’s also competitive enough to use a different word on the first try each day in hopes of someday landing it without a second guess.
“I think I beat Skubal today,” Rogers said last week. “I think he got it in four [tries], I got it in three.”
Once the 2022 season began, the daily Wordle kept Rogers and Skubal going through the ups and downs of injuries. Skubal had a case for being an All-Star for a good portion of the first half before fading a bit. His season ended in August with flexor tendon surgery in his left forearm, putting him in the same status that befell fellow starters Casey Mize, Faedo, Manning, Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske and Tyler Alexander at various points during the season.
Rogers had a front-row seat watching injured starters pass through the Tigers’ Spring Training facility in Lakeland while he worked on his own rehab. He was able to catch bullpen sessions for a few of those rehabbing pitchers but wasn’t allowed to throw the ball back while he worked on rebuilding his arm strength.
That reflected the struggles of his own situation. Though Rogers was able to get back behind the plate in side sessions over the summer and began swinging a bat shortly after, throwing was a longer process. While pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John surgery focus on routines and repetitions, catchers have to be ready to throw quickly from different stances and angles.
That admittedly was a challenge for Rogers, whose strong arm has always been an asset for him as a defense-first catcher.
“I’ve always been a very accurate thrower,” said Rogers, who joked that Dr. Keith Meister gave him a bionic elbow with the surgery. “As far as the velocity, everything has been good. Early on, it was a little tough. It wasn’t like normal, where I could hit the guy in the chest every time. It’s been very good lately. It feels like I’m playing catch [like] before surgery.”
By August, it became clear that his best-case scenario was a return in mid-to-late September. It would’ve been a more important step mentally than physically, but with the Tigers out of contention, they decided to lean towards caution instead.
“I was being a little bit selfish in trying to push back as hard as I could,” Rogers said. “Me and the Tigers kind of came to an agreement that we didn’t want to rush anything just for two weeks at the end of the year. So we came to a common decision to … make sure to get things right.”
Rogers said he’s long-tossing to 120 feet, and his throwing program is on track to end late next month, just before Spring Training. His hitting program is similar to a normal offseason, and he’s lifting weights four days a week. He has tried to use the extra time to work on his swing and approach with Detroit's hitting instructors.
He feels like he has seen enough of Lakeland for his liking. But when he returns in February, he’ll be fighting for a spot up north. For now, unless the Tigers add a catcher, there’s an open spot in Detroit behind Eric Haase.
“I’m excited,” Rogers said. “I’m just ready to go back to Spring Training with the guys, getting out there and getting used to the vibe again. I’ve been able to see pitches and stand in [a batter's box], but it’s going to be about getting at-bats and fighting for a job. I’m looking forward to fighting for a job and helping the team.”