Three years, two surgeries, one last try
Mathieson attempting comeback after two Tommy John operations
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Scott Mathieson bounds through the packed Phillies clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex. The room is full of Minor Leaguers getting ready for Spring Training. Most hunch over plates of food in front of their lockers. Others stand around talking.
Mathieson's right shoulder is wrapped in ice.
He is smiling.
"I can go outside right now and throw 95 mph," he said Monday.
It has been a while since he could say that. It seems even longer since he could say he can throw without pain. Mathieson, a 6-foot-3 right-hander who is trying to come back from his second Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, was one of the Phillies' top prospects in 2006, when the parent club called him up from Double-A Reading. He went 1-4 with a 7.47 ERA in nine appearances (eight of them starts), but left his last start Sept. 2 against the Atlanta Braves after throwing just six pitches.
Twenty-seven days later, Mathieson had his first Tommy John surgery.
He seemed to be progressing nicely when he made his first rehab appearance late in '07. But he eventually started to feel some pain again. He had an ulnar nerve transposition Sept. 24, 2007, which was said to be a minor procedure.
"My first time coming back, I threw a game in the Gulf Coast League, and I was [so] happy," he said. "I was throwing 97 mph my first game out. I felt great, all the way until when I felt a twinge. They assured me it was just a nerve."
But when Mathieson started throwing again early in 2008, he felt more discomfort.
That popping sensation.
He needed another surgery.
"The lowest of the low was after that," Mathieson said. "I was scared that it was going to be the end. The one thing I've always tried to tell myself is that I don't want an injury to end my baseball career. I want them to force me off the field because of my play, not because I'm hurt."
The recovery rate from Tommy John surgery is believed to be anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.
But a second Tommy John surgery?
"It's about 30 percent," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.
Baseball Prospectus injury expert Will Carroll estimates the success rate to be higher. He mentions other pitchers who have had at least two Tommy John surgeries: Jose Rijo, Scott Williamson and Chad Fox come to mind. Chris Capuano currently is trying to come back from his second Tommy John surgery.
Regardless, Mathieson faces great odds as he begins his comeback this spring. He understands that.
"I don't want to say it's my last chance, but with the Phillies, I'm sure it is," he said.
"If anyone is going to do it, it's going to be this kid," Amaro said. "He's so physical, and he's a very, very hard and conscientious worker."
Mathieson, a 17th-round pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, came through the Phillies' farm system as a hard-throwing starter. But after his first Tommy John surgery, the Phillies projected him to be a back-end-of-the-bullpen piece. If everything broke perfectly, they thought he could be a closer. If he couldn't close, they believed he could be a successful setup man.
Mathieson's future remains in the bullpen, because the Phillies aren't sure Mathieson's elbow is durable enough to pitch out of the rotation.
Mathieson is throwing from 150 feet these days. He hopes to be throwing off a mound by the end of the month, definitely by April. He also is hopeful he can be pitching games in May. And with any luck, he might get to leave Florida by June.
"If that's Double-A, [Class A] Lakewood, [Class A Short-Season] Williamsport, I don't care," Mathieson said. "If I'm pitching pain free, I'm happy. I don't care where I go. It's my thing to make it happen now. It's on me. It's not up to them. I have to work [at it].
"I don't think I've lost any motivation. It's been more of a challenge, and I've had more determination to come back. It's going to be a lot slower, but knock on wood I haven't had any hiccups or anything since this one. It's definitely achier and slower than in the beginning coming back from the second one, but it feels good. I know I can go and throw the ball [really hard]. My biggest challenge now is holding back."
Three years ago at this time Mathieson was pitching for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Chase Utley thought he had hit a home run against Mathieson, memorably raising his arms up into the air only to fly out at the wall.
"I was watching it the other day, and I was like, 'I should be there,'" Mathieson said. "I was kind of reliving that moment. Right now, it's frustrating to watch, but putting the uniform on the other day and doing PFP's [pitchers fielding practice], I felt like this was my first year in camp. I'm finally back, and I was so close. It's coming back. It's a reality again. I've been out for so long. Baseball is fun again. Unfortunately, the last two years, it hasn't been."
It was a struggle for Mathieson to come to the ballpark at times.
Do it again the next day.
"I don't want to go through this again," he said.
These days, he shows up at the Carpenter Complex around 6:15 a.m. ET, because he wants to be around the atmosphere.
"I feel like I'm back again," he said. "And what else am I going to do? Sleep?"
See you soon, Scott?
"Maybe this year," he said with a smile. "And if not this year, hopefully next year."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.