Commentary

Chris Young's second baseball act

The Mariners' righty is finally pain-free and pitching like the All-Star he once was

Originally Published: May 19, 2014
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

At least one player -- other than everyone on the Cincinnati Reds, of course -- was particularly pleased last week when Aroldis Chapman returned to the mound. Chapman, who was hit above the eye with a line drive in spring training, made his season debut two Sundays ago and struck out the side against the Padres.

''I was happy to see him back out there,'' Seattle pitcher Chris Young said.

After all, Young knows exactly what Chapman went through to get back. Six years ago this week, pitching for San Diego, Young also took a line drive to the face -- and a line drive off the bat of Albert Pujols, no less.

That liner broke Young's nose, but didn't cause extensive damage beyond that. He was back on the mound and pitching two months later.

[+] EnlargeChris Young
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonHard to imagine, but Chris Young says he doesn't worry about being hit again.

"For me, I wanted to get back out there as soon as possible -- I didn't want any time to pass," said Young, who has rebounded from years of injury to start 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA with the Mariners this season ahead of Wednesday afternoon's start at Texas. "I wanted to jump back on the horse as soon as possible to prove to myself and to everyone else, too, that there is no psychological impact.

"It was a freak accident. Just one of those things. It's the risk you take, and I'm lucky it hit where it did and there wasn't more severe damage. And I'll take my chances that it won't happen again. It's completely out of my mind. It has never crossed my mind again."

Putting his other injuries behind him, though, wasn't so easy for Young. In fact, the shoulder problems, unrelated to the line drive, that he endured in the seasons afterward were much more painful and troublesome. He was an All-Star for the Padres in 2007, but his career declined as he made multiple trips to the disabled list after 2008 because of shoulder pain. He was released several times and pitched just 60 games and 337 innings in the following five seasons. He pitched just 44 big league innings in 2010-11, and did not pitch in the majors at all last year.

The shoulder was so painful that Young says he couldn't sleep on it or even hold up his children. He considered retirement. And then last summer, a doctor diagnosed what the problem really was. His shoulder, it turns out, wasn't the issue; it was thoracic outlet syndrome that was causing the pain. He underwent surgery to correct the problem in June -- removal of part of a rib and neck muscles around a nerve -- and the shoulder pain was gone immediately.

[+] EnlargeChris Young
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziThis was the scene on May 21, 2008, when an Albert Pujols line drive felled Young.

"It's been pain free," Young said. "It's been a big blessing for me and I don't take it for granted. I was at a point where I was basically ready to walk away. 'I've done what I can and my shoulder just is not meant for this.' And so, after having surgery, I woke up and I knew the pain was gone. Ever since, it's just continued to get better and better."

Young was making some rehab starts by the end of last year, and he pitched well this spring but did not make the Nationals 'rotation. When Washington released him, Seattle quickly signed him. The contract, however, wasn't guaranteed if the Mariners let Young go within the first 45 days of the season. The Mariners had just offered the same arrangement to Randy Wolf, who turned it down, opening up a spot for Young.

"The way I looked at it, it was an opportunity and I was grateful to the Mariners for giving me that chance," Young said. "I feel like the last few years of my career have been unfulfilled. I got to a point where I was becoming a really good pitcher, and all of sudden I started having all these shoulder injuries.

"But it wasn't injuries. It was one specific injury that caused everything. I thought it was just shoulder problems and it turns out it was something I hadn't considered, that nobody had considered. And it fixed everything."

[+] EnlargeChris Young
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesPitching pain-free … it's a new sensation for Young.

A quarter of the way into the season, one of the biggest stories in baseball so far has been the proliferation of pitchers' arm injuries and Tommy John surgeries. Everyone is asking why, and offering possible contributing causes. A Princeton graduate, Young has his ideas as well.

"There are a lot of different reasons. One of the biggest ones I think is, diagnostically, we're better at identifying these things," he said. "[Also,] athletes in all sports are bigger, stronger and faster, but are our bones really made for it? Can our ligaments and bones keep up with the stress we're putting on?"

Young says he wonders if excessive weight-lifting is a factor.

"I think it's contributed to some of my injuries, and I think we need to look at the way we train,'' he said. "Maybe some of these older guys, pre-steroids, had it right when all they did was sort of throw and run and do small shoulder exercises. You grow the big muscles and the small ligaments can't keep up.

"That's my theory. But I have no medical expertise -- aside from six rehabs."

Hopefully, there won't be a seventh rehab. Young turns 35 at the end of the month; and having lost so much to injury in recent years, he is eager to stay healthy, competitive and very good on the mound. He is certainly doing well so far, holding batters to a .210 average with a 1.14 WHIP.

"I don't know if it's possible to make up for lost time, but I love playing the game,'' he said. "I love pitching. I love being around my teammates, the competition. There is nothing I would rather do, and I want to do it as long as I can."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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