Topa hopes to pitch for Twins this season despite setback

May 14th, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- The toughest part of all this for is that he’d been one step away from getting onto the active roster when his troublesome left knee flared up again four outings into his rehab stint with Triple-A St. Paul.

After getting so close, a healthy return couldn’t have felt further away on Tuesday, when Topa’s left knee was immobilized in a brace as he gingerly moved around the Minnesota clubhouse with the aid of crutches.

An MRI had revealed a 25 percent tear of the patellar tendon in his left knee -- and though there’s a surgical option that Topa might still eventually need, he and the Twins are hoping that a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection will allow him to salvage this season after an upcoming six-week period of rest that he will need as the next step in his recovery.

“It's been very frustrating, to say the least,” said Topa, 33. “Of all the injuries -- I've had my plethora of elbow injuries -- this one has been the most frustrating from the rehab standpoint, the protocol, getting the protocol correct and overall just feeling like we're in a spot to keep moving forward.”

Even without Topa, the Twins’ bullpen has been fine, entering Tuesday with a 3.75 ERA and the highest strikeout rate among AL relief corps -- but some cracks have emerged of late, and Topa was expected to be a key arm in that mix after he arrived in a trade with Seattle alongside Anthony DeSclafani (lost for the season with flexor tendon repair surgery), Gabriel Gonzalez (the No. 86 prospect in baseball) and Minor League pitcher Darren Bowen.

The way the injury had first been characterized in Spring Training by the Twins was that Topa could perhaps have pitched through the pain in the knee -- as he did throughout his successful 2023 campaign with the Mariners -- but that they were getting ahead of the issue to give him rest and set him up for the season.

Topa said that he didn’t know at the time that there was a tear in the patellar tendon, and that it had simply been diagnosed as a tendinitis issue. This time, the look at the second MRI showed Topa the tear he hadn’t been aware of, and after a second opinion with Dr. Timothy Kremchek in Cincinnati, Topa and the Twins opted for the injection instead of the surgery.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to avoid surgery for Justin and we’re trying to salvage some of the season for him this year,” head athletic trainer Nick Paparesta said. “This was, when everyone got together, the best-case scenario to try to get to that point.”

A six-week period of rest would put Topa’s next check-in with medical staff at the end of June, after which he’d need to undergo a full ramp-up back into throwing, given how long it will have been since he last appeared in a rehab game at Triple-A on May 5.

“The injection was the best option to get back as fast as possible,” Topa said. “That's been my goal from Day One -- to get this done and over with and pitch this year and make an impact this year. Unfortunately, there's a sense of a waste of six weeks after the first go-round. This time, we're on the right track.”

It’s even more frustrating for Topa in that this has marred his transition to a new organization after his arrival in that offseason trade.

This won’t be his only chance to impact the Minnesota bullpen, as he’s controllable for two more seasons beyond this one (and that’s part of why the Twins targeted him in the Jorge Polanco trade), but Topa was hoping to impact this group -- and hopes this injection will finally allow him to do that.

“It's extremely frustrating, especially coming over to a new organization, getting the camaraderie of everybody in Spring Training,” Topa said. “You feel like you're part of the team but not, in a sense. You're not traveling and you're not doing the day-to-day stuff, that makes it tough.”