Scott Diamond heard the words “Tommy John” and realized he was out of options.
The Canadian left-hander opted for surgery in December to have a bone chip removed in his throwing elbow rather than face the likelihood of elbow ligament replacement, or Tommy John, surgery within two years.
“Looking back at it, I had already had some bone spurs in [the elbow] that had found a nest somewhere in my elbow that didn’t cause much pain,” Diamond, who emerged as the Minnesota Twins’ ace last season, said in phone interview from the team’s spring training site in Fort Myers. Fla.
“If [Dr. David Altchek] hadn’t gone in and cleaned it out when he did, [bone chips would have surfaced] either in spring training or during the season. With the spur being that close to the ligaments and tendons it could have been the possibility of Tommy John."
Diamond, 26, figured he probably had bone chips in his elbow when it became inflamed during his junior year at the University of Binghamton in upstate New York in 2007. Fortunately, the inflammation subsided and allowed the Guelph, Ont., native to pitch the next five seasons without any discomfort.
Things changed three months ago when Diamond, while jumping rope in the basement of his off-season home in New York City, heard a crack in his elbow.
Diamond is currently pain-free and last week threw from 55 and 60 feet on consecutive days at spring training before taking the mound Friday and Saturday for pitching sessions that included throwing to a catcher who stationed himself in front of the plate. He could face live hitters as early as this weekend.
“I’m actually really positive about it because I was back in the [strike] zone [on Friday] and able to stay on a lot of [pitches] and the ball seemed to be coming out [of my hand] all right, too, so right now it’s more mechanical stuff,” said Diamond, who continues to eye an early-season return and perhaps an opening-day start against the visiting Detroit Tigers on April 1.
Diamond also spoke to CBCSports.ca about a challenging injury rehab, getting his pitching mechanics figured out and a surprising 2012 season in which he won 12 games with a 3.54 earned-run average in 27 starts while walking only 31 batters in 173 innings.
What did you cherish about your 2012 season and what did it show you about where you’re at in your development as a major league pitcher?
Diamond: I think last year was my fifth year in pro ball and every year it seems like there’s always been something that I’ve needed to improve on or continue to work on. I’ve had some great coaching along the way that helped me work and continue to progress mechanically and mentally.
Last year, everything just seemed to come together, and to be able to do that at the major league level not only meant a lot to me but helped me realize where I’m at in my career and physically that I’m able to pitch at this big league level. It gave me a better perspective on where I stand and what I’m able to accomplish.
Are you a patient man by nature?
Not when it comes to injury. If I have any inflammation or soreness I want it gone immediately. I usually wasn’t patient coming through the minor leagues and I’ve kind of learned the game will come to me. I just have to breathe through it and take it step by step. I think the patience is a trait I’ve worked on.
Describe how being cautious in your approach has challenged you mentally at spring training when you see other guys letting things loose with their pitches?
That’s a great question because I’m definitely bitin’ at the bit a little just seeing everybody else out there [healthy] being able to be up on the mound as much as we’ve been. That’s what’s great about our coaching staff and our training staff, is that every day I’m coming in seeing if we can push a little bit. I know I’m pushing my intensity and coming out really well but they just continue to remind me that we have a schedule, we have a program.
How much work is involved for a pitcher who is recovering from having a bone chip removed from his elbow?
The bone chip is usually a very minor and common procedure with baseball players, at least pitchers in general, because of the wear and tear on your arm from throwing over the top all the time as much as we do. [A bone chip] is just a deposit that continues to build up just from the jarring of your bones. It’s simply going in and filing it down, so there really isn’t that much rehab you have to do.
You have to let it heal because the only problem is that the joint could swell. Structurally, if everything is fine and clean in [the elbow] there’s not a big worry because all you have to do is let it rest. I talked to the doctors about it and they said I’m pretty loose jointed, which helps me structurally, which helps me take less wear and tear on my arm.
One of the challenges coming off your surgery is finding your mechanics again. What does that mean, specifically, with respect to your delivery?
That’s been a work in progress to find the mechanics. Last year was the first year that everything seemed to click. When that happened I sat down with our pitching coach [Rick Anderson] and found the triggers that allow me to get that mechanical position to allow me to be the most efficient or to pitch the best.
I made mental notes as to what trigger points will make me successful. As I’m building up my arm strength and working off a mound again, those are the triggers that I’m trying to reach every time to get back where I need to be.
As far as your release point, how would it be different at this time in spring training had you arrived for camp at full health?
In years past, because I’ve always been fighting for a spot on the big-league roster, I would have thrown 10 to 15 bullpen [sessions] at spring training and a couple already. There’s always a difference with your release point when you play catch on flat ground or play catch off the mound. Your release point lowers a bit because you get a little more extension on the mound.
Because I didn’t come into spring training throwing any bullpens, it’s just trying to get that release point to get lower again so I can get that extension and back down in the zone. If I was to keep the release of the ball up as if I was throwing in the outfield, it means the ball’s going to be up when I’m pitching and I’m going to get killed.
Your curveball was an important and effective pitch for you last season but they put a lot of strain on a pitcher’s elbow. Will you be able to throw curveballs early in the season?
I haven’t thrown the curve at spring training. I’ve been throwing it like short toss. I don’t think the Twins will allow me to take the mound without being able to have that pitch. That’s been a big pitch in my repertoire and I won’t be taking the mound for Minnesota until I’m truly healthy and that means being able to control my pitches.
Usually [the curveball] is the last thing to come [to me at camp]. It’s not so much feel as it is just snapping and getting the right grip and action down. It’s not a concern, really. It’s just getting used to that snap action and throwing the fastball. Once I get that endurance up, the other pitches will come a lot quicker.