JUPITER, Fla. - St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal came into the spring as an injury question mark after his 2012 season ended early due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing) elbow. Furcal undertook a rehab course this offseason, but his first true test came when he had to make aggressive throws in spring training. His elbow failed that test.
Last week, Furcal began to have pain in his elbow every time he threw and, as a result, is no longer throwing. The Cardinals have shut him down while he undergoes further medical evaluation. He had another MRI Friday and was examined by team physician Dr. George Paletta on Monday. Even before any official word came as to the result of Monday's consultation with Paletta, the long faces around the facility while I was there seemed to say it all. The Cardinals have indicated Furcal will obtain a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews on Wednesday. The next step, it seems, will be dependent on whether or not surgery is recommended for Furcal. The natural follow-up question then is: At 35 years old, on the second year of a two-year deal and with a storied injury history (which includes back surgery, hamstring strains and thumb surgery), would Furcal really be prepared to undergo another lengthy post-surgical recovery to return to play? That answer should come soon.
What a difference a year makes
Pitcher Adam Wainwright says his elbow definitely feels better one year further removed from Tommy John surgery. "No question," Wainwright said. "It feels more normal." In the medical world, the consensus is that the "new" ligament, which is truly a converted tendon, has further strengthened as a result of adapting to the stresses placed on it from the first year of post-surgical pitching. But the expectation is that pitchers will return to (or near to) their prior level of performance once they take the mound competitively following surgery.
Wainwright provided some insight as to how it really feels to get back on the mound for the first few months after a long layoff and a surgical reconstruction. He said his elbow experienced "a freak-out session" when he first began throwing again. "After taking a tendon from my hamstring and putting it up in my forearm, my body was wondering what was going on."
And there was pain. "I felt pain in my elbow during the early part of the season," Wainwright said. He knew his elbow had been repaired, and he wasn't worried about injury. He just knew he wasn't quite himself yet. The results bore that out. It wasn't until the second half of the season that Wainwright really showed signs of returning to form.
That doesn't mean he has let up on his rehab work heading into this season. "A lot of guys come back from Tommy John surgery and then have problems in their shoulder," Wainwright noted. He has kept up with an exercise regimen designed to help protect his throwing shoulder. He gives all the credit to the Cardinals' rehab staff for keeping him on task. "The [athletic] training staff has gotten more and more savvy in helping rehab these injuries, so the 'prehab' has become important."
The Cardinals are counting on the sum total of Wainwright's rehab and "prehab" to lead him to a strong season in 2013. With Chris Carpenter not a part of the pitching equation for the foreseeable future and no Kyle Lohse, the team is likely to lean on Wainwright. Fortunately for the Cardinals, it sounds as though this year he's ready for the challenge from the get-go.
The skipper is ailing, too
It's a rough injury day for the team when it starts with the manager getting an epidural injection. But that's exactly what Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was doing early this morning in an effort to get some relief from his relentless back and leg pain. Matheny has a herniated disk in his back and associated nerve compression, which is affecting his leg. The ailment did not prevent him from showing up to work on time, though. As anyone who has had an epidural injection knows, this is impressive and further reflects his stoicism. When I spoke with him, he preferred standing to help keep the pain at bay. He did indicate he felt the shot had given him some relief and seemed encouraged that there was some progress.
While Matheny may be willing to put up with pain, he is not willing to stay silent on the topic of collisions at home plate. In recent days, Matheny has spoken publicly of his desire to see MLB ban collisions at the plate entirely, not only because of the risk to the catcher but also to the baserunner. Matheny, who sustained multiple concussions during his career (which he associates primarily with such collisions), was forced into retirement because of the effects of post-concussion syndrome. After going through his own extensive recovery, learning more about concussions and watching how other sports are more formally addressing the problem, he decided there was at least one thing baseball could do to eliminate a source of such injuries: Take out the intentional impact.
"In football and hockey, they don't really have an option to go away from contact. We're in a different position."
Matheny sees the problems with concussions in youth sports and believes baseball has a responsibility to set an example. "A concussion is not just a concussion. It's a trauma to the brain."
As far as the responses he's hearing from around the league with regard to his proposal, Matheny seemed to search for the appropriate-for-prime-time word. "I'm getting a lot of ... [pause] ... feedback," Matheny said. He adds that he understands the traditionalists, but his own experiences and observations, along with a better understanding of the long-term effects of concussions, have led him to take this stand. Matheny hopes his personal experience will help prevent other young players from suffering similar consequences.