Taylor Buchholz proudly shows off his rebuilt right arm like a science fair project.
He points to the scars, short marks on each wrist and a more distinct line under his elbow. He talks about the removal of tendons from his forearms, how they were placed in the elbow joint in place of a damaged ligament and anchored into freshly drilled holes.
It’s all quite remarkable, or at least it would be if ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction — best known as Tommy John surgery — weren’t so commonplace.
“I’m happy I didn’t get it done 15 years ago when they were still trying to figure out the whole surgery,” said Buchholz, the Rockies reliever on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Colorado Springs. “I’d m uch rather have that done than a shoulder problem these days.”
Before John’s 1974 operation broke ground in sports medicine, elbow injuries like the one Buchholz suffered typically meant the end of a career. Instead, just 11 months after the operation Buchholz is in the final phase of an orchestrated recovery program and worried not about pitching again, but regaining that final burst on his fastball.
“You’ve got to build up your arm strength,” he said. “I’m still kind of reaching out there to get that last couple of miles per hour. They say it’s about 16 to 18 months before you get your full velocity back. Right now I want it, but I’ve got to know it’ll still be a little while before it’s all back.”
A full recovery would be a major boost for the Rockies. Before the injury Buchholz had emerged as the prize from the Jason Jennings trade. He appeared in 63 games in 2008, posting a 2.17 ERA as the bullpen’s most reliable option.
Early returns suggest he remains the same pitcher.
He faced the minimum through his first five appearances — including three innings at High-A Modesto — but was hit hard in his most recent appearance, surrendering four runs while recording just two outs. He has six strikeouts and just one walk in his rehab outings.
“It was a little weird out there throwing the first couple times,” Buchholz said. “Just not knowing what to expect out there is different. But overall, it’s gone better than I ever expected it would. I’m not going out there trying to throw as hard as I can, but I’m not holding back.”
The organization is keeping close tabs, and for good reason. Buchholz tried to pitch through the injury that sidelined him at the end of the 2008 season. When it didn’t improve the next spring, the team tried to let it heal with rest. Finally, on June 17, he went into surgery.
“We certainly aren’t going to rush him,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said. “I wouldn’t expect him back until he’s pitching back-to-back days and snapping off breaking balls and feeling no discomfort. We can keep him in our hip pocket and it will be like adding a free agent.”
Sky Sox pitching coach Doug Linton is overseeing the program, though he’s not calling the shots.
“It’s all laid out, they do that for me,” Linton said. “We’re just trying to make sure he stays healthy and gets stronger from outing to outing. So long as he’s getting strong, everything is going to plan.”
Buchholz, 28, knows most pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery don’t see a full recovery until their second season back from the injury, but that hasn’t quelled his excitement to return to Coors Field. After all, the last time he took the field for the Rockies he was joined by names like Matt Holliday, Scott Podsednik and Willy Taveras, players that have long-since drifted into the organization’s rear-view mirror.
“It’s been a really long time,” he said. “I’m chomping at the bit right now. It’s been long enough. I’ve got this whole gamut of emotions running through me right now. I’m ready.”