PEORIA, Ariz. — It was a between day on the throwing schedule Thursday for veteran left-hander Randy Wolf in his bid, at age 37, to win a spot on the Mariners’ staff.
Think about that, though.
It’s fairly remarkable that Wolf is even on a throwing schedule this spring in a big-league camp. Turn back the calendar. It’s closing in on 17 months since he saw his career swerve toward a cliff.
That was late September 2012 in Baltimore, which acquired Wolf less than a month earlier from Milwaukee for a postseason push. He made five appearances for his new club but knew something wasn’t right.
“All of a sudden,” he recalled, “my elbow felt like it was filling up with fluid. So I wouldn’t be able to get extension on pitches, and my velocity really dropped.
“I saw the team doctor, and he did the stress tests. He said my elbow seemed stable, but they gave me an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging exam) just to make sure.
“The next day, I talked to the doctor on the phone,
and he said, ‘I really don’t know what to say.’ I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘In your elbow, your ligament is gone.’ ”
That meant Tommy John surgery for the second time in Wolf’s career, which led to some deep soul-searching and a clear decision: He wanted no future “what-ifs” in looking back on a career already spanning 14 seasons.
“Your time in baseball is so finite,” he said. “It happens so fast. No matter how long your career is, that last day arrives faster than you wanted it. I just thought, ‘I’ll do the rehab. I’ll do it right.’ ”
Wolf embarked on a punishing workout and conditioning regimen. Far tougher than what followed his previous surgery in 2005. After all, he knew what to expect and, more important, he knew the odds.
Only handful of players have attempted to return after a second Tommy John surgery, but the success rate isn’t high.
“I have my own theory on why it’s less successful the second time,” Wolf said. “My theory is, one, it usually happens to older players. If you’re older, you usually have a family.
“You’ve probably had a somewhat (successful) career. When the second one comes around, you’re not as dedicated as you were the first time around. You have some distractions — family, which are reasonable distractions.
“Guys not being as dedicated as they were the first time ... of course, it’s not going to be as successful.
“Or, two, you’re younger and there are some serious mechanical breakdowns that make it hard to come back.”
Wolf also knew this much from his first time through the procedure: There are no quick returns from Tommy John surgery. It wasn’t until last November that he felt ready to audition for clubs.
It could not have gone better. Wolf performed well enough to draw several offers, but he liked the opportunity the Mariners offered to win a spot in their rotation.
The two sides reached agreement earlier this month on a minor league deal that calls for a $1 million guarantee if he makes the club and includes numerous performance bonuses for starting or relieving.
Wolf’s physical condition impressed the Mariners before he signed, and he has been sharp in the low-leverage challenge of throwing bullpen sessions early in camp.
“It’s coming out pretty good,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I’m anxious to see him in competition. He’s a veteran guy. He’s done it, and he’s done it at a high level.”
Wolf is 130-117 with a 4.20 ERA in 376 games over his 14 seasons with six clubs. His last healthy season was 2010, when he was 13-10 and 3.69 in 33 starts for Milwaukee.
“I’m not putting the carriage in front of the horse,” he said, “but at the same time, I know how things have progressed. ... I feel stronger. I know I’m stronger than I was when I was 25.”
Wolf altered his rehab throwing program this time in an effort to accelerate his ability to spot his pitches; touch and feel are, typically, the last skills to return for pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“When I came back the first time,” he recalled, “my command and my touch on my curveball took forever. My velocity was there. I actually threw a little harder, but my command wasn’t there.
“This time, when I first went off the mound — you’re throwing at 60 percent, but I concentrated on going in and out.”
The early results are encouraging. Wolf said his “curveball is probably better than it was before.” For all that, he remains realistic; he has much yet to prove, but opportunity beckons.
The Mariners could use a lefty, especially a veteran lefty, in their rotation.
“The test is, obviously, the season,” Wolf said. “And bouncing back (after pitching). Those are the hurdles I have yet to jump over. But, so far, things have gone really well.
“I know I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and I’ve been really smart about it. But at the same time, it takes a lot of luck.”firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners