Astros' McCullers, Athletics' Bassitt Share Bond of Tommy John Surgery Recovery

The starting pitchers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series in Dodger Stadium both have had come come back from Tommy John surgery, most recently the Astros' Lance McCullers, who missed all of the 2019 season. It took the Oakland Athletics Chris Bassitt three seasons to get back to the top of his game.
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Lance McCullers and Chris Bassitt, the starters respectively for the Astros and the A’s in Game 1 of the American League West Division playoffs that begin Monday at 1:7 p.m. in Dodger Stadium, have plenty in common.

Prominent among them is that they’re right-handed starting pitchers who have made it back to the big leagues after having Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.

Bassitt’s took place back in May of 2016. 

"That TJ for me wasn't easy," Bassitt said Sunday. "Whether it was my mechanics or whatever it be. But I just didn't bounce back well." 

For McCullers, the surgery didn’t; come down until November of 2018.

For Bassitt, it’s a been a long road back, but he’s at the peak of his game now, coming into this start having allowed two runs total in his last five starts.

For McCullers, the distance in time from the surgery is 2½ years shorter, and the results have been much more uncertain. He didn’t pitch at all in 2019, and while his 2020 season has been nine starts with a 3-3- record and 3.93 ERA, the Astros have lost the last four games he started in the regular season, although McCullers himself pitched reasonably well.

The last game he won, in fact, came when he was matched up Bassitt on the first game of an Aug. 29 doubleheader in Houston. He was matched up against Bassitt in that one, too, in what turned out to be Bassitt’s worst start of the season, a 4-2 Houston win.

But while Bassitt has gotten steadily better, thing have been rocky for McCullers. He went on the injured list on Sept. 6 with what was described at the time as a neck nerve irritation. After an anti-inflammatory injection, he was back and pitching 12 days later. He made three starts over a 10-day stretch from Sept. 16-26.

According the manager Dusty Baker, the injection alleviated “95 percent” of McCullers’ neck pain. The right hander wasn’t needed in the wild card series against the Twins; it’s likely he would have started Game 3 if needed.

McCullers has a 2.53 ERA in 11 postseason appearances, four of which have been starts, all of which came before the Tommy John surgery.

Still, in a four-year career, McCullers hasn’t pitched a full season without getting hurt. And the worst of it, the Tommy John surgery, he detailed in a mini documentary film, The Return.

“It was a scary time,” McCullers says of the comeback from Tommy John surgery in the 10-minute film. “I remember those first couple days of rehab, man, it was like the rehab was just literally, 'Try to touch your fingers like this.' (Touches tips of fingers to tip of thumb). This was the rehab. Just try to touch. Try to get that feeling back in your fingers, because I was numb probably from about the end of my (forearm) scar to my wrist for like four months. It’s like my whole arm would just be numb."

Still, he seems to be healthy now, and in his last 17.2 innings hasn’t allowed an earned run, although he did allow four unearned runs, and, with the Astros offense in a funk, Houston went on to lose all of those games.

McCullers has postseason experience in Dodger Stadium. He started Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, and while he only pitched 2.1 innings in a start, that gave Houston a leg up to beat the Dodgers, 5-1,

2017 was, of course, the season for which the Astros have been drowned in infamy, the Astros having been outed as sign-stealers by Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Astros that season and who had a chance to start against the Astros in this series.

Baker said that left-hander Framber Valdez, who pitched five scoreless innings of relief in Game 1 against the Twins, will start Game 2 against the A’s lefty Sean Manaea.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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