PEORIA, Ariz. - The surgery to repair his right elbow last year meant Shawn Kelley wouldn't pitch again until late May, and his rehabilitation for the elbow is on schedule.
It’s Kelley’s head that’s causing him problems this spring.
Something of a bullpen phenom two springs ago, when he came to camp with the Seattle Mariners as a nonroster invitee – then made the team with the live right arm – Kelley is now trying to impress an all-new manager and coaching staff.
He can run and do all the fielding practice drills. In the weight room, he’s something of a beast, and at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Kelley can lift with anyone on the team.
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What he can’t do is pitch.
“There’s a level of comfort you have when there’s a group of coaches who know what you’re about,” Kelley said. “You can only show it in so many ways when you’re not able to get out there on the mound.
“But I bust my tail and get after it in the weight room and try to help out as much as I can on other things, and talk to them so they get to know me.”
Kelley loves the feel of this camp, the attitude of manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis.
“There’s a lot of excitement and fire, and the coaches are getting everybody pumped up because we’ve got these young guys stepping up,” said Kelley, who’s all of 26. “I kind of remember doing that a few years ago.
“It makes me want to get out there and pitch, get that same feeling going – ‘Wait, wait, you haven’t seen me pitch yet.’ ”
When Kelley made he team in 2009, it was with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider, pitches that made him a middle man as a rookie who was later trusted to set up for the ninth inning.
A strained left oblique landed him on the disabled list and beat up his final numbers: (5-4, 4.50 earned run average).
Last spring, he made the team and after 17 regular-season appearances was 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA – best in the bullpen at the time. Then something went wrong in his right elbow, and Kelley recognized the pain.
It was the same pain he’d felt as a college freshman in 2003 at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. The injury: a ruptured tendon in his right elbow. It had to be completely rebuilt.
So when Kelley felt the pain this time, he pitched as long as he could, knowing some bad end might be coming. In his last four innings of relief, he gave up six runs.
Then he stopped pitching.
The Mariners scheduled surgery for Sept. 1.
“I realized that 100 percent of the time when they cut you open, it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s not, and they’re messing around with it, it usually it results in getting Tommy John surgery,” Kelley said.
That’s what he’d had in 2003.
“The first one I was younger and a little more resilient, a little more eager to let it fly, but at the same time still nervous because I’d never been through anything like that,” he said.
This time, the surgery wasn’t as invasive. There was no surgical team to remove one ligament and transplant another.
“The doctor said, ‘We went in there and the ligament was just in better shape than anything we could have done replacing it. It was stronger, tougher and intact,’” Kelley said.
“There was some damage where it attached to the bone. They snipped off that little piece at the top and the hole they drilled eight years ago for Tommy John was still a good clean hole, so they took the ligament and re-looped through the same hole they drilled eight years ago.”
Instead of missing all of 2011, Kelley has been told he could be pitching again in May, back with the Mariners by June.
“Today I’m throwing a little bit at 70 feet and a little bit at 90 feet, everything on a line at about 65 percent,” Kelley said, then laughed. “I don’t know where I got that number. I don’t even know what 65 percent is.
“I’m not just a freshman in college, 18 years old. This is my career now, my passion. There’s a little more uncertainty how it’s going to respond.
“Now, it’s constantly on my mind. I go out there every day and pray that when I throw the ball it’s going to feel great. It has so far and I have no reason do doubt it.”
Team trainers say Kelley is right on schedule with his rehab work.
“I’m right on what we set out as a goal,” Kelley said. “The only thing is, as I continue to throw – my arm feels great – there may be steps we progress through quicker. As long as things go well, every time I throw we’ll increase the intensity and distance.”
“You look at it now from, ‘This is my job’ perspective. I want to do this. I want my son to grow up and be able to run around the clubhouse. I want him to see me pitch.”