SARASOTA, Fla. -- For the last year, Christian Vazquez kept hearing the same two words over and over from his doctors, trainers, coaches, teammates, even from the Baltimore Orioles’ Matt Wieters, one of the few big-league catchers to make it back from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Yet here was Vazquez, 341 days after undergoing the procedure typically reserved for pitchers and with a rehabilitation of 12-15 months, behind the plate for the Boston Red Sox and catching lefty Roenis Elias for two innings of a spring training game against Wieters and the Orioles.
And when he was through, Vazquez had two words of his own.
“I’m back,” he said.
Well, not quite. Vazquez still has to make it through the next four weeks without any setbacks, and even if that happens, he likely will be assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket until he proves he’s ready for the workload of an everyday catcher.
But considering the long recovery since last March 13, when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on a throw to second base, there was an undeniable significance to what happened Tuesday at Ed Smith Stadium.
“It was two innings -- and a happy player coming off the field after what he’s gone through,” manager John Farrell said. “He looked very comfortable. He handled a couple balls in the dirt clean. You look at his throws down to second in between innings, it looked similar to what they were pre-surgery. A productive day in a lot of areas, and Christian was one of them.”
Vazquez admitted he was “nervous a little” about returning to game action, but the feeling subsided shortly after Orioles leadoff man Nolan Reimold stepped into the batter’s box against Elias. Vazquez got one at-bat, a tapper back to the mound in the second inning, then helped Elias escape a bases-loaded, two-out situation before calling it a day.
“That was my goal, to get back to the field and do my catching things,” Vazquez said. “I’m happy, I’m excited. It’s a long year to get back, but I’m here.”
When Wieters stepped to the plate in the second inning, he tapped Vazquez’s shin guard with his bat, an acknowledgement from one Tommy John-surviving catcher to another. But Wieters also should serve as a cautionary tale that Vazquez must still take things slowly.
Wieters, who had the surgery midway through the 2014 season, thought he would be ready for Opening Day last year. But a bout with elbow tendinitis in spring training pushed his return into early June, and even then, he rarely caught more than a few games in a row without either a break to be the Orioles’ designated hitter or a day off.
Vazquez won’t play again until Friday, at which point he’s scheduled to catch three or four innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. Beyond that, the Red Sox will continue adding to his workload gradually.
They’re making no guarantees about Opening Day either. With 23-year-old Blake Swihart penciled in as the starting catcher and veteran Ryan Hanigan as the backup, there’s no need to rush Vazquez back to the big leagues before he’s ready.
“That’s not my decision,” Vazquez said. “Where they put me, I’m going to play and do my 100 percent. It’s not my decision.”
Said Farrell: “What we’ve always prefaced to everything with him is what’s best for Christian long-term, making sure we don’t rush past any steps along the way. He’s understanding of it. He also recognizes he needs to build up some stamina. Is there a possibility that could happen in camp? I don’t want to completely rule it out. But at the same time, he’s shown the ability to be realistic in where he’s at in the whole return.”
This and that: Making his first spring training start after dealing with a minor ankle injury, Elias tossed two scoreless innings and showed an ability to change his arm angle to give hitters a different look. With lefty Eduardo Rodriguez dealing with a dislocated kneecap, Elias could be vying with lefty Henry Owens and knuckleballer Steven Wright for a spot in the rotation. ... With a steady wind blowing out to right field, second baseman Brock Holt homered in the first inning against Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez. ... Third baseman Travis Shaw went 1-for-3 and is 6-for-11 overall in four games. ... Lefty Brian Johnson relieved Elias and allowed one run in three innings.
Meanwhile, in Fort Myers: Rather than face the Orioles, right-hander Rick Porcello threw 55 pitches to 13 batters over three innings in a simulated game at JetBlue Park. ... Closer Craig Kimbrel (20 pitches to five batters) and Junichi Tazawa (19 pitches to four batters) also got in their work.