His season last year was a mess, a constant search for the right mechanics that was ultimately answered when Dr. Neal ElAttrache sliced open Buehler’s right elbow and discovered bone chips and fragments lodged into Buehler’s ulnar collateral ligament.
Buehler had surgery on Aug. 23 last year. Just about 12 months later, he faced his first batters, a collection of minor leaguers from the Dodgers’ Arizona Complex League affiliate, in front of a crowd of club personnel keeping a watchful eye on the arm several have assumed was primed to take the torch of the rotation by the time he got hurt.
He threw just one inning, but it was something.
Manager Dave Roberts said Buehler sat around 92-93 mph with his fastball, with obvious room to grow as he continues to build up. Overall, it went fine, Buehler said. One outing against hitters doesn’t mark a successful rehab. He will probably have to throw another four or five before he can start a minor-league rehabilitation assignment.
But another checkpoint also means he’s another step closer to being back on a big-league mound when it counts, a break from the monotony of being on the sidelines.
“It’s been good,” Buehler said of the rehab process. “It stinks. But it is what it is.”
The 29-year-old right-hander has long been a curious sort. So, in his time on the sidelines, he’s sought answers not only to whatever was missing in his mechanics when he didn’t look like himself a year ago, but how to prevent another surgery.
That included a visit over the weekend to the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., where he was covered head to toe in wires for a motion capture and threw in front of Dodgers assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness as well as Dr. Greg Rose and former big league pitcher and current consultant Tom House, whose list of clients varies from pitchers to golfers to even quarterbacks the caliber of Tom Brady.
“I’ve hurt my elbow twice now pretty seriously so there’s a part of, what’s in my delivery that isn’t working?” Buehler said. “While also trying to keep the things that do work well. I’m working on some mechanical stuff. We also toyed around with, ‘Hey, throw some balls like this,’ or with this cue, trying to figure out which one is the lowest-hanging fruit, I guess, or what fixes the most things at once.
“Now we’re going to try to alter how I train or how I practice to kind of clean up some of that stuff. All in all, I think it’s one of those things where I’m just trying to take care of myself and my body and coming back and being able to perform is the biggest thing.”
When he’ll be able to perform is the next-biggest thing for the Dodgers, who need the pitching enforcements. Buehler was bold in his proclamation earlier this year, targeting a Sept. 1 return to a major league mound. He tempered those expectations some Wednesday, saying he hopes to at least be on a rehab assignment by that date.
“This surgery, a second Tommy John, is 14 to 18 months (standard rehab),” Buehler said. “If I step on a field this year, I’ll have blown that out of the water. So I’m pretty proud of where I am right now. I don’t think Sept. 1 is probably a reality, but I’m hoping sometime in September.”
The outlook, Roberts said, “is looking good.” Los Angeles needs it. Buehler’s first time facing hitters was accompanied by another surprise – former All-Star reliever Blake Treinen also faced hitters for the first time since offseason shoulder surgery, and saw notable velocity gains (from 86-87 mph in bullpens to 94 mph) in his session that seemingly makes his return more viable.
For a pitching staff that has uncharacteristically struggled this season (their 4.43 ERA entering Wednesday ranks 19th in baseball), those are good signs.
“The worst-case scenario is we’re gonna have some tough decisions (for October), which is a good thing,” Roberts said.
(Photo: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)