LOS ANGELES – Walker Buehler has found ways to pass the time. He went to the Kentucky Derby. He hangs out with his wife and dogs. He plays golf. tweet to fight against boredom and monotony. What he really wants to do, though, is pitch.
The 28-year-old, two-time All-Star is holding out hope that it’s still possible this year, as unlikely as it might have seemed when he underwent his second Tommy John surgery last August.
Buehler has made it his personal goal to return to the Dodgers as a starter on Sept. 1, just 12 months after undergoing UCL reconstruction and flexor tendon repair.
“I don’t think anything has happened that tells me it’s not an achievable goal,” Buehler said.
Manager Dave Roberts appreciated Buehler’s confidence, even if he didn’t express the same level of optimism, calling the Sept. 1 comeback “pretty aggressive.”
“I mean, it’s hard to bet against this guy,” Roberts said, “but Sept. 1 is not what I was hearing. I’m glad he feels that way. That’s good.”
On Tuesday, Buehler was at Dodger Stadium pitching a standing bullpen. The next progression is throwing down to a receiver at his position, which Buehler hopes to accomplish in about three weeks.
If Buehler’s September target is a realistic possibility, he would be a significant addition for the one-month stretch after baseball’s trade deadline.
“Some coaches want me to dial it back a little bit,” Buehler said, “but that’s not how I operate.”
At the time Buehler underwent his procedure, he was in the process of trying to find his mechanics. A heavier workload may wear it out. In 2021, Buehler went 16-4 with a career-best 2.47 ERA in his second All-Star season. He led the majors with 33 starts and crossed the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career.
That October, he pitched for the first time on short rest. The clutch right-hander, who made a name for himself through earlier playoff success, allowed four runs in four innings while pitching on three days’ rest in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series in a 4- 2 to the Braves who defeated the Dodgers. out of the playoffs.
Buehler hoped to get off to a faster start in 2022, starting his offseason pitching schedule earlier than usual. There were occasional moments of brilliance, including the first clean sheet of his six-year career, but for the most part last year was a battle. His typically dominant four-seamer lacked the same life, his slugging percentage dipped and his season ended with a 4.02 ERA after 12 starts.
Initially, Buehler was placed in the IL to relieve a flexor strain. Knowing he would likely be out 10 to 12 weeks anyway, he also opted to undergo surgery to remove a bone spur from his troublesome elbow. But his plans to return before the end of the season were thwarted when he felt tightness in his elbow.
Ultimately, Dr. Neal ElAttrache had to perform a second Tommy John surgery on Buehler, who also underwent the procedure shortly after the Dodgers drafted him in 2015. Buehler said the latest recovery process for Tommy John is easier after you’ve been through it before.
“First of all, I probably had the best surgeon in the world do my elbow twice,” Buehler said. “The day I had surgery [in August], he told me it was one of the best surgeries he’s ever had. Maybe it was just him trying to make me feel better, but I really took it to heart. I feel good and trust Dr. ElAttrache with whatever.”
That’s important, considering this Tommy John procedure was different than most.
“I had some kind of piece of bone from an old injury that broke off and went into my ligament, so they had to cut it out, but nothing was re-broken,” Buehler said. It wasn’t like I threw and it took off. It was a full Tommy John, it was a rebuild, everything was medically what they would say, but I don’t think technically it was that detrimental to the long-term health of my elbow. So I guess that’s reflected in the fact that most Tommy Johns are 14-18 month rehabs.”
Buehler, meanwhile, feels comfortable trying to make a comeback in 12 months.
“I guess the behind-the-scenes stuff, or the way it’s been told to me, gives me some comfort in trying to do it,” he said.
He finds hope in others who have returned to form after a second Tommy John surgery. As examples, he pointed out Jameson Taillon and Nathan Eovaldi, who entered Wednesday night riding a 28 2/3-inning scoreless streak.
As Buehler makes another comeback effort this year, he’s about 12 pounds heavier, hoping the added weight will help him stay healthy. Instead of focusing on speed during his rehab, he’s focusing on his mechanics, trying to replicate what he felt in 2021.
“That was kind of a weird warning,” Buehler said, “because in ’22 I never felt good.”
He made it clear that he won’t be back if he doesn’t feel like he’s putting his team and himself in a good position. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his 2024 season by rushing back.
But for now, hold out hope.
“Sept. 1, I guess, is still the goal for me,” Buehler said. “Things are going well so far.”
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He was previously editor of the Dodgers’ digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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