July 26, 2020 was a highly anticipated day for Texas Rangers fans. Prized offseason acquisition Corey Kluber was making his debut in Rangers powder blue, which signified the beginning of a three-headed monster atop the Texas rotation.
We all know the headline story by now. Kluber threw one inning, looked a little uncomfortable, and ultimately left the game with what was later diagnosed as a tear in the teres major muscle in his right shoulder.
Young Rangers southpaw Joe Palumbo was the first out of the bullpen to help pick up the injured Kluber. He retired the first six batters he faced in order with four strikeouts, which had the makings of a solid return to the big leagues after a rough-but-brief debut in 2019.
The outing was subsequently squashed in the fourth inning. Palumbo faced five hitters, not retiring any of them, and was tagged for three earned runs. His velocity dropped and he looked gassed.
That seems plausible. After all, the entire baseball world had to deal with a quick ramp up last year because of the COVID-19 shutdown.
However, 15 days later, Palumbo urged his cousin Jeremy Larkin to take him to the hospital.
"If I'm saying, 'Somebody take me to the hospital,' then there's obviously something wrong because I wouldn't just come out and [say that]" Palumbo told the media via Zoom on Saturday. "My symptoms were out of control."
Those symptoms were from a flare up of ulcerative colitis (UC), an auto-immune disease that impacts over 900,000 Americans. Palumbo was diagnosed with UC in November 2016. It wasn't until his flare up last year that his diagnosis became public knowledge — a flare up that kept Palumbo in the hospital for five days.
"Nobody really ever heard that I've ever had UC because I was in a remission this whole time," Palumbo said. "The flare up that I had last year was the first time I've ever experienced any complications."
Palumbo started seeing symptoms close to the beginning of spring training last year. He was able to manage them and compete in games throughout Cactus League play. Throughout the year, his conditions worsened to the point where it became, in his words, "extremely serious." By the end of September, Palumbo had lost a lot of weight — from close to 200 pounds down to 165.
"My quality of life was not the best," Palumbo said. "It was nothing with my diet. It was the medication that I was on. It literally just failed me. It just stopped working. And there was nothing I could do to prevent it.
"It was really a shame. I mean, I tried everything I could do to play the game last year. And I tried to stay on the field for as long as I could. I wanted to help the team win, and I wanted to contribute. But it didn't turn out that way."
Palumbo has switched from Lialda, which required four pills every day, to Stelara, which is one injection every eight weeks. He has a great support group with the Rangers, which includes club dieitian Stephanie Fernandes and fellow starting pitcher Kyle Gibson.
The Rangers were not unfamiliar with the disease before Gibson signed a three-year contract in December 2019. Oakland A's reliever Jake Diekman underwent a colectomy because of his UC while with the Rangers in December 2017. Gibson's praise of Fernandes was a big reason of why he signed with the Rangers last winter.
"Gibby and I have spoken briefly about it," Palumbo said. "I think one day, we're going to sit down and get together and discuss some things more in depth."
Palumbo worked very closely with Fernandes on his diet and food options this winter. He's also ramped up his carb intake and consumes a daily shake that helps him keep the disease at bay. Palumbo is back up to 185 pounds, which is a weight both he and the Rangers feel is better for him after flirting with the 200 mark last spring.
"I was just testing the waters with gaining as much weight as I could," Palumbo said "I did feel a little bit too big, though. Like it was almost a little bit too much. I feel good at 185 pounds. I think this is a fair weight for me. I can move my body pretty well here, so I'm happy with where I'm at right now."
After a year in which he barely pitched, Palumbo feels healthy and strong in camp. He has been able to go through his normal offseason routine and has seven bullpens under his belt thus far.
The Rangers feel that Palumbo can still start in the major leagues. And that's where Palumbo wants to be.
"Physically, I feel great. My arm feels great," Palumbo said. "I'm ready to roll."