Thank Heavens For Tommy John

Many years ago, the words “Tommy John” were simply used to describe a crafty left-handed pitcher whose nasty sinker induced countless groundballs every time he took the mound.  Today those words, of course, tend to appear ahead of one other word:  surgery.  John, who won 288 games over 26 Major League seasons, would have had his career cut short had it not been for a revolutionary new medical procedure that reconstructed his ulnar collateral ligament in 1975.

Since then, hundreds of pitchers have successfully undergone the same surgery. As I witnessed the Sacramento call-ups of Josh Outman and Joey Devine last week, it dawned on me that 2011 might just be the year of Tommy John for the A’s pitching staff.

Outman, who hadn’t pitched since 2009, certainly gave a ringing endorsement to TJ surgery when he twirled a brilliant five-hitter over seven innings Monday against the Angels in his first big league start of the year.  He and his new-and-improved left arm will need to play a key role in the Oakland rotation, at least for the next couple months, as Brandon McCarthy (stress shoulder fracture) and Tyson Ross (strained oblique) continue to mend.  Then add to the bullpen a rejuvenated Devine–he of the 0.59 ERA in 2008 before Tommy John surgery–who seems to have recaptured his old form with three scoreless innings in his three relief appearances after a two-year layoff.

Outman and Devine are by no means the only A’s members of the Tommy John fraternity.  Where would we be without the Man from Sydney, Grant Balfour?  He benefited from TJ surgery back in 2005, and has risen to great heights since, including three appearances in the 2008 World Series with the Rays, not to mention a 3-1 mark and 2.08 ERA in 15 games with Oakland thus far this year.

And there’s 25-year-old righthander Fautino De Los Santos, part of the Nick Swisher deal with the White Sox, who filled a roster spot briefly this past week after a Triple-A call up.  While De Los Santos did not see any action during his Oakland stint, he figures prominently in the A’s future after successfully responding from 2008 Tommy John surgery.

Yet, the most significant TJ alumnus is two-time All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, who should rejoin the club in the next week or two after rehabbing a strained right forearm that has sidelined him since spring training.  We all held our collective breaths when Andrew had to halt his spring appearance against Cleveland in mid-inning, clutching his right arm–and knowing that he once sat on the operating table of Dr. James Andrew, the Godfather of Tommy John surgeries.

So, next time you come out to the Coliseum or watch a road game on Comcast SportsNet California, and you glance down to the A’s bullpen or watch Outman fire his first pitch as the team’s starter, raise a glass to the old lefthander, Tommy John, who perhaps unknowingly, chan

ged the course of baseball history with a radical surgery that has now become commonplace.

And if Bailey, Outman, Devine, Balfour or De Los Santos need any reinforcements from Sacramento, maybe later this year the team will call up Willie Eyre, who’s 3-2 with a save and 2.08 ERA in 18 relief appearances.  Eyre would feel right at home.  After pitching for the Texas Rangers, he had Tommy John surgery in 2007.

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