Early on this spring, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais estimated that reliever Sam Tuivailala might return in late May or early June.
Tuivailala, who has now missed more than 10 months while recovering from an Achilles rupture, hasn’t yet returned to the big-league club. But he’s getting closer.
He threw well in six relief appearances with high Single-A Modesto while on a rehab assignment in early May, and tossed some quality innings with Triple-A Tacoma later in the month. The results were fine enough — he threw 10 innings with the two minor-league clubs, allowing three earned runs on three hits while walking three batters and striking out eight.
While with the Rainiers, Tuivailala said his Achilles wasn’t an issue, and he hasn’t felt significant pain from that injury for quite some time. But, the right-hander’s throwing arm just wasn’t coming around, and he returned to Seattle’s training room searching for more answers.
Now, he’s again set to begin another rehab assignment Friday with short-season Single-A Everett.
“You never really want to take a step back,” Tuivailala said. “I was really excited. I felt good in Modesto. It could have been just one little thing with the shoulder. My range of motion was a little tight. So, we just took a little step back from there, and now we’re good to go.”
Servais has referred to what Tuivailala has been working through as “dead arm.” The 26-year-old wasn’t feeling pain while throwing, but the ball wasn’t moving in the way the Mariners glimpsed last summer, when Tuivalala made five relief appearances after arriving in a deal with the Cardinals.
He injured his Achilles in a run down just days after the trade, and hasn’t pitched for Seattle since.
“He could see the ball’s not jumping out of his hand, and doesn’t feel right,” Servais said after the latest setback.
Servais was much more encouraged by Tuivailala’s progress Wednesday afternoon. Tuivailala threw about 30 pitches in a bullpen session the day before, and Servais said Tuivailala’s velocity was back in a good spot.
“It’s a very good step for him,” Servais said. “The biggest thing was getting his range of motion back, and loosening up that shoulder. He’s been working his tail off with our training staff to do the manuals to crank those muscles open, and getting the range back. He’s been feeling better, and the mound work showed it.”
Tuivailala said the 30-pitch count was a bit higher than he wanted, but it was good to get the work in. He said his arm felt good during the session.
“It’s kind of hard for me to baby it,” he said. “Pretty much I go 100 percent in the bullpens. (Tuesday) felt really good, and it was good to kind of run the pitch count up there, get the stamina and everything going as well.”
While the road back has been lengthy, and frustrating at times, Tuivailala said he’s ready to get back on the mound.
“It’s been long,” Tuivailala said. “It’s kind of like a wave. You’ve got good days, bad days, but I’m just excited to get back out there. My body is feeling better, so I’m just happy about it.”
FELIX TO ‘START BUILDING UP AGAIN’
Servais said there was no new damage to Felix Hernandez’s injured right lat after receiving the results from an MRI taken Tuesday. Hernandez has been out since May 22 and left a minor-league rehab start early last week because of fatigue.
“There were really no significant findings different from what we’ve seen in the past there, so that’s a good thing,” Servais said. “It was just a shoulder fatigue situation. He’ll get back to doing strengthening exercises there, probably pick up a ball here in a few days and start building up again.”
Servais said Hernandez was throwing at typical velocity and throwing all of his pitches well before the setback. Hernandez will likely throw more bullpen sessions before heading out on a new rehab assignment.
“The biggest thing is he’s got to feel good,” Servais said. “Once you get into a game, no matter what level you’re pitching at, you pick up the intensity. He’ll try to get a little bit more intense in the bullpens before he goes out on the next rehab, and we’ll hopefully get him back as soon as we can.”
Servais said the Mariners will use an opener for the seventh time this season in Thursday’s series opener against the Orioles with Wade LeBlanc’s turn in the rotation up again. He did not announce who the opener would be.
In the six times Seattle has the opener approach this season, the results aren’t great. The collective opener ERA is 18.56, and four of the pitchers the Mariners have tried have allowed multiple runs during their outings. Twice the opener has been tagged with a loss, and the Mariners have a losing 2-4 record in games they’ve used this strategy.
Servais said earlier this week, ideally, the Mariners would like to find a consistent opener, but the club has yet to discover who that could be.
“The way our rotation is set up, it’s not back-to-back days,” Servais said after the most recent attempt. “It’s set up for finding that guy who can go out and throw a zero up there. It’s been a challenge so far.”