Those who winced through Brian Wilson’s season-ending outing on April 12 witnessed the atypical effects of a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
Wilson’s velocity dropped noticeably while he pitched in obvious discomfort. While it was surprising that Wilson finished the game, it was little surprise when the Giants’ All-Star closer underwent Tommy John surgery a week later.
However, the effects of elbow injuries are not always so obvious. Just look at Giants prospect Brett Bochy. Two years ago at the University of Kansas, the right-handed reliever was one of the most dominant closers in the nation. After earning his fifth save of the year for the Jayhawks on April 1, however, a recurring bout with elbow soreness finally caught up with him.
“I had been pitching pretty well,” Bochy said. “Everything was going well. Then I got a sore elbow. I thought is was tendinitis, and it turned out to be Tommy John. Then I got [the surgery] done … and [the doctor] said it had looked like it was an injury that had happened for a while, and just started to flare up.”
Even with the foreboding injury flaring up, Bochy’s high velocity was consistent. He was throwing strikes, and most importantly, he was getting results. Overpowering as a junior, Bochy allowed just nine hits through 23 innings, while striking out 34 against seven walks.
“It wasn’t really something I felt on one pitch, but it got to the point where it was pretty painful, but I was still pitching with it,” Bochy said.
Going under the knife just three months prior to the 2010 draft, Bochy’s stock took a big hit. The 6-foot-2 right-hander ultimately fell to the Giants in the 20th round, while he was still trying to reestablish his full range of arm motion following surgery. It wasn’t until he arrived at minor league camp in 2011 that he was able to throw from the mound.
“I felt great right when I came back,” Bochy said. “Standing out on the mound, I felt like my stuff was back, and everything was back. As far as bouncing back in back-to-back days, that took awhile to come. Last year I didn’t have that as much. This year I feel great.”
Bochy took an even-keel approach to his rehab. For Giants fans familiar with the demeanor of his father Bruce Bochy, Brett is cut from the same stone. The approach served him well. He saw immediate success in his rehab year of 2011 at Low-A Augusta, appearing in 35 games while tallying 10 saves to compliment a 1.38 ERA.
This season, Bochy skipped a level with a promotion to Double-A Richmond. He didn’t immediately assume the closer’s role for the Flying Squirrels, but soon earned the job by starting the year with eight consecutive scoreless appearances. He currently has eight saves along with a 1.62 ERA.
“He’s a guy who nothing bothers him on the mound,” Richmond pitching coach Ross Grimsley said. “I asked the question to him in spring training: ‘How do you handle the pressure that comes with your dad being the manager of the big league club?’ … He just said he had a good time playing, and it shows. The pressure of his dad being the manager, he doesn’t show it one bit.”
Bochy’s repertoire is tailor made for the bullpen. He consistently locates a low-90s fastball, and backs it up with a slider-changeup combo.
“He throws strikes. He’s deceptive. [Batters] don’t take good swings off of him most of the time,” Grimsley said. “He just does everything you want a guy to do that comes out of the bullpen.”
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the big-league bullpen. In addition to Wilson’s injury, veteran right-hander Guillermo Mota is serving a 50-game suspension. While Dan Otero and Steve Edlefson each struggled amid early-season call-ups, the current promotions of right-handers Shane Loux and George Kontos are showing promise. Also, left-hander Dan Runzler has been moved up to Triple-A Fresno as part of his rehab assignment as he rebounds from a lat injury.
Should there be any more obstacles for San Francisco’s relief corps, though, the front office will need to get creative. The only other available pitcher on the 40-man roster that has yet to see major league action this season is Hector Correa, who is currently at High-A San Jose. The recent signing of Brad Penny – who recently amped up with four relief outings in eight days at Triple-A Fresno – gives the Giants a veteran option. Otherwise, any more personnel issues would force the Giants to either make a deal or dig deeper into their farm system.
Grimsley mentioned an additional trio of relievers who, along with Bochy, have been standouts at Double-A this season – left-handers Tom Vessella and Chris Gloor, and right-hander Daryl Maday. However, he couldn’t give a clear projection for the respective timetables of Richmond’s pitchers.
“As of now, it’s hard to say,” Grimsley said. “You can’t tell. If somebody starts throwing a lot of strikes, and they’re around the plate, and they can handle themselves the way you’d hope a guy would handle himself in the big leagues … but at this point, no, there’s probably not a spot for them.”
Just as with his approach to rehab, Bochy is even keel about where he pitches. It doesn’t seem it matters to him where he pitches, or what role he ultimately assumes. He just wants the ball.
“Whatever role they want me to pitch in, I’m comfortable with,” Bochy said. “So, whatever the Giants have planned, I’m willing to do.”