FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You’re with a new organization, you have no history with the trainer, there’s a job to be won, and you have the reputation of being a guy who takes the ball, an honored trait among those who pitch for a living.
So even though John Ely felt some pain in his elbow last spring with the Houston Astros, he didn’t say anything, until the morning he woke up after having pitched the night before for Triple-A Oklahoma City and the elbow was so tight he had no choice.
Even then, he wasn’t prepared for what Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedist, told him after he underwent surgery last April that started as exploratory and wound up being Tommy John ligament reconstruction.
“The MRI hadn’t shown much,’’ Ely said, “but when Dr. Andrews went in there, he said the ligament had probably been torn and stretched for the last six, seven years.’’
Ten months later, Ely is in camp with the Red Sox, his fourth big-league team. He was drafted by the White Sox, traded to the Dodgers in the Juan Pierre deal, briefly made a sensation in L.A. when he rattled off seven strong starts, was sent back to the minors, and was traded to the Astros.
Coming off a season in which he had been named the Dodgers’ Minor League pitcher of the year, Ely liked his chances of winning a spot in the rotation for Houston, a team woefully short of pitching.
“I went in fully expecting to win a job,’’ Ely said. “Of course, that’s how you think every year, but in the back of my mind it was, ‘That’s my spot.’’’
And so, even though he felt some discomfort in the back of his elbow, Ely didn’t say anything. He’d pitched through it before.
“It was one of those things where as long as I could throw, I was going to throw,’’ he said. “I was doing well. I was losing velocity year by year, but I just figured, ‘Deal with it.’
“It’s hard, when you’re trying to win a spot, to walk in and say my elbow hurts. My reputation has always been a guy who goes out and takes the ball. I didn’t want to show up the first time in spring training and say, ‘I can’t go out there.’
“It’s one of those things in hindsight I probably should have.’’
Only 10 months out from surgery, Ely doesn’t figure to be in the Sox pitching mix this spring. Chances are, he said, he’ll be held back in extended spring training for a month or two. The Sox have him on a throwing program in which they’re increasing the intensity very gradually.
But Ely, who turns 28 in May, is hopeful that once he can trust that the ligament is healthy and can withstand the stress of pitching again, he might get another taste of big-league success that came and went so quickly with the Dodgers in 2010. With a fastball that never topped the high 80s but with a changeup that kept hitters off balance, Ely went 3-2 with a 2.54 ERA in his first seven starts before the league caught up. He was 4-10 with a 5.49 ERA when the Dodgers sent him back to Triple-A.
“It was incredible,’’ he said, “but with a big-market team you don’t get a whole lot of leash.
“I wish I would have been a little more experienced at the time, knew a little more about how to keep my arm in better shape, had paid a little more attention to detail,’’ he said.
“But I learned a lot, and then I went down to Albuquerque and learned how to pitch.’’
Since coming here, he said, he has had a chance to talk to John Lackey, who last season made a triumphant return from TJ surgery. And Lackey is seven years older.
“He said, ‘As long as you rehabbed the right way, your [ligament] is fixed, you just have to trust it,’’’Ely said. “I busted my butt the whole way through. I don’t want to rush it, but being on the field you feel a little more adrenaline, the blood burning. I’m trying to take it slow, test it a little bit, but so far it’s been pain free.’’