Saskatchewan pitcher goes from surgery to stellar MLB success

Last Tuesday Andrew Albers pitched eight and one-third innings of shutout ball for the Minnesota Twins in one of the best major league debuts by a Canadian in history.
Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Andrew Albers delivers to a Kansas City Royals batter during the third inning of his MLB debut in Kansas City on Aug. 6. (Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Last Tuesday Andrew Albers pitched eight and one-third innings of shutout ball for the Minnesota Twins in one of the best major league debuts by a Canadian in history.

But it wasn't too long ago that he thought about giving up on baseball completely.

Selected by the San Diego Padres in the 10th round of the 2008 amateur draft, the North Battleford, Sask., native was less than a year into his professional baseball career when his elbow betrayed him.

Albers underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2009, and his rehab was long and painful.

"Coming back from that was tough," he said. "At one point, to be honest, I didn't even care if I couldn't play baseball again. I was about four months (into rehab) and I couldn't get the range of motion down with my arm. I was really struggling with that.

"I just wanted to be able to move my arm again. I didn't care about baseball."

But Albers stuck to it, undergoing a second surgery to remove scar tissue from his elbow and beginning the rehab process once more.

The southpaw returned to Padres camp for spring training the following year, throwing to live batters once before being cut from the organization. The next day he was on the road, making the 27-hour drive from Peoria, Ariz., back to North Battleford.

"Did I expect to make it to the big leagues after that? Certainly not," Albers said. "But you always hold on to hope, right? You hope that it will happen, but you never know."

Albers spent the following season playing independent ball with the Quebec Capitales of the CanAm League before a successful tryout with the Twins in 2011 brought him back to affiliated ball.

Over the next two seasons, Albers rose through the ranks of the Twins' minor leagues, receiving his long-awaited call-up to the majors after going 11-5 with a 2.86 earned-run average through 22 starts with the triple-A Rochester Red Wings.

Albers makes his next start — and his debut in Minneapolis — on Monday against the Cleveland Indians.

It's a 1,600-kilometre trek from North Battleford to Target Field, but the Twins' home stadium is the closest big league ballpark to his hometown by far.

And if the contingent of Albers fans who made their way to Kansas City for the Canadian's debut last week is any indication, he'll have a loud cheering section when he takes the mound on his new home turf.

"I certainly don't expect it, but for those who do make the trip down, it will be great to see them there," Albers said. "It's neat to share that moment with people who you've grown up with and who have meant so much to you.

"Anyone willing to make that trip from home is probably someone that is pretty special in my life and I will be so appreciative of them coming."

As the first Saskatchewan-born player to crack the big leagues in 22 years — Melville's Terry Puhl last appeared in a MLB game in 1991 — Albers means a lot to the province.

The significance of that is not lost on the 27-year-old who's spent time on the national team, pitching in big situations like Canada's gold-medal win at the 2011 Pan American games, and in the country's only win at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

"It's been a long time since there's been someone from Saskatchewan in the major leagues and I hope I can go out there and represent them the way they deserve to be represented," Albers said.

"There are so many people back there working so hard and doing things the right way, and I want to represent that the best I can."

Albers says that being the one to break the province's major-league dry spell is a "special feeling."

"To be a part of that, that's pretty neat and it does mean so much to me," he said. "There have been some great players from Saskatchewan throughout the years who haven't quite made it, so it's nice to get here to give kids some hope that it can happen.

"There are definitely shortcomings you have to overcome being from Saskatchewan with the short season, the long winters, things of that nature. It's not an easy road but it is possible. Hopefully me being up here now gives some kids hope to pursue their dreams and hopefully we'll see a few more of them up here in the future."

Albers doesn't know how long his major league journey will last, but he's enjoying the ride.

And it all comes back to that 2009 Tommy John surgery and the struggles which followed.

"That really puts things in perspective for me," he said. "It makes me very appreciative of the fact that there was a point in my life where all this was almost taken away.

"You like to think you don't take things for granted but you don't know that until it's taken away and that was the case for me. It was really an eye-opening experience and I'm glad I went through that."