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Mariners reliever Kelley has more to lose

A second elbow surgery eight years after the first is much different now that baseball is his career

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By Kirby Arnold
Herald Writer
  • M’s reliever Shawn Kelley throws during a practice at camp this year.

    Larry LaRue, The News Tribune

    M’s reliever Shawn Kelley throws during a practice at camp this year.

PEORIA, Ariz. — This isn’t the first time Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Shawn Kelley has rehabbed from surgery on his right elbow. Eight years ago while he was in college, Kelley had full-blown “Tommy John” ligament replacement and pushed himself through the year-plus struggle of pain and recovery in order to pitch again.
But after his latest surgery, even though the procedure Sept. 1 wasn’t as complex, Kelley’s perspective on it has been much more serious. This time he has a profession to resume and a family, especially his newborn son Parker, who he dreams of watching him pitch in the major leagues.
“You look at it now from a this-is-my-job perspective,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m pretty confident that life after baseball will be fine, I’ll figure something out. But at the same time, I want to do this. I want my son to grow up and be able to run around the clubhouse. I want him to see me pitch.”
Kelley had what the Mariners say was a “partial” Tommy John procedure Sept. 1 after feeling pain in the elbow midway through last season. Los Angeles orthopedist Dr. Lewis Yocum found that ligament remained strong but it needed to be re-secured to bone above the elbow.
While the recovery period is expected to be much shorter from this operation — Kelley is expected back in June — it has given him a different sense of how badly he wants to pitch again at this level.
“I’m older and know what to expect, but at the same time I’m not just a freshman in college, 18 years old,” he said. “This is my career now, my passion. This is what I do now. Going into college, who knew what I was going to do for a living, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now.
“Now, it’s constantly on my mind. I go out there every day and pray that when I throw the ball it’s going to feel great.”
The good news for Kelley is that his recovery has followed every expectation, without setback. He knows, however, the true test won’t come until this spring when he’s throwing to hitters in minor league rehab appearances. That’s when setbacks often occur.
Kelley is playing catch at this point, throwing from 70 feet at about 60 percent effort level.
“We’re right on what we set out as a goal,” he said. “As long as things go well, every time I throw we’ll increase the intensity and distance.”
Eight months ago, Kelley was hurting.
He’d pitched in 22 games before landing on the disabled list June 25 because of elbow inflammation. He appeared on course to return late in the season, pitching three times in relief on a rehab assignment with the Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, but after the third game the elbow clearly wasn’t right.
He flew to L.A. to be examined by Yocum and came back not only knowing he’d need surgery but fearing a long recovery.
“They basically told me it would be over a year,” Kelley said. “The day before the surgery, I’d finally come to grips with it, that I would have Tommy John and miss the next season and I’d be looking for 2012. Then I woke up from surgery and … it ended up being for the better.”
When Kelley awoke from surgery, the first thing he checked was his left arm to see if the surgeon needed tissue from it to transplant into the injured arm.
“They’d shaved my arm and they’d shaved my hamstring in case they needed it from there,” he said. “But I looked and there was no cutting, no stitches. I thought, ‘What happened? Did I have the surgery? Did I just doze off?’”
A few minutes later, speaking with his dad and Yocum, Kelley learned the extent of the procedure. There was damage where the ligament attached to the bone, but otherwise it was stronger than anything they could have taken from another part of his body.
“The hole where they drilled eight years ago for Tommy John was still a good clean hole, so they took the ligament and re-looped it through the same hole they drilled eight years ago,” he said.
Kelley is thankful the rehab has gone so well, and that he can perform nearly every drill — except pitching — at spring training under the eyes of new manager Eric Wedge and a new coaching staff.
Kelley admits he does have moments when he sees other young relievers throwing and would like to tell the coaches, “Wait, you haven’t seen me pitch yet.”
“But I can’t, and I’ve made peace with that,” Kelley said. “I feel like I’m blessed doing what I’m doing. I could bitter about being hurt. I’ve been on the DL two different stints in three years and I could think about what-if and that kind of stuff. But it’s just going to bring you down.
“It doesn’t bother me. I’m happy to be here in a big-league uniform and do what I do, and I’m going to do everything I can to get healthy and play as long as I can.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at and his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.
Story tags » Mariners

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