Putting on airs pays off for Phillies' Mathieson

Scott Mathieson used a hyperbaric chamber to heal from surgery.
Scott Mathieson used a hyperbaric chamber to heal from surgery. (YONG KIM / Staff photographer)
Posted: June 28, 2011

IF IT WAS good enough for MJ and good enough for T.O., Scott Mathieson figured it was good enough for him, too.

After the third elbow surgery of his young career, Mathieson bought a hyperbaric chamber to aid in the healing. He had just sold one of his two cars, had a little cash on hand, and wouldn't be driving much for the 3 months his right arm was in a cast.

So, he spent the spring of 2008 sleeping 9 hours a night zipped into the clammy, oxygen-drenched environment that kept Michael Jackson looking (hauntingly) young and Terrell Owens running strong.

"I figured I had nothing to lose," Mathieson said.

He might have won, big.

After his third lengthy rehab in as many years, Mathieson, a tantalizing starter prospect in 2006 with a 95-mph fastball, in 2009 managed 22 relief appearances in the three lowest levels of minor league ball, going 4-0 with an 0.82 earned run average.

By the middle of 2009, he was feeling no pain for the first time since his thrilling, nine-game, eight-start run in the majors in 2006. Still, it took him a long time to get loose, he ate a diet of anti-inflammatory pills and he iced his arm like a penguin.

Not so in 2010. Mathieson spent last season at Triple A Lehigh Valley, where he went 3-6 with a 2.80 ERA and 26 saves in a career-high 54 appearances for the IronPigs; no ibuprofen and, sometimes, no ice.

Ditto this season. He was 0-0 with a 2.59 ERA and five saves in 19 games with the Pigs when the Phillies called him up Friday to replace injured starter Roy Oswalt on the roster. Kyle Kendrick moved from the bullpen to the rotation.

Would Mathieson have made it back without his $20,000 bed of healing?

"Who knows?" Mathieson said. "A lot of people are skeptical of hyperbaric therapy. I understand that."

And he doesn't care.

A native of free-thinking British Columbia, Mathieson, 27, has never cared what people thought of him, and he rejects the stodgy stereotypes professional baseball clings to.

Thrice repaired? Hah, he said: "I feel like I'm 22."

He was 22 when the Phillies called him up from Double A in 2006, where he was setting Reading on fire with his gas. But that's all he had.

Then, after 2006, came the first Tommy John surgery, followed quickly by surgery to move a nerve in the elbow, then, while he was in the midst of his comeback, another Tommy John surgery.

He didn't pitch at all in 2008, and he feared his career might be over.

Then, on the recommendation of fragile journeyman pitcher Kris Benson, Mathieson found his oxygen high. Five nights a week, his wife of only 5 months, Jennifer, would watch Mathieson fold his 6-4, 230-pound frame into the chamber, and she would zip him in.

Soon, she might be watching Mathieson start another major league game.

Mathieson was frustrated by not being called up last season when the Phillies needed pitching help. This spring, after he was sent down from major league camp, Mathieson asked minor league pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller and Pigs pitching coach Rod Nichols whether they would consider him for a starter's job sometime this season.

They said no.

Then, the IronPigs' resources depleted - Vance Worley to the big club, Brian Gordon to the Yankees (via opt-out clause) and Nate Bump to the disabled list - and Mathieson got the chance he hoped for.

It was his first non-rehab start since 2006, and he made the best of it. He allowed one hit, struck out seven and walked none in 3 scoreless innings against Pawtucket on June 19.

No longer was Mathieson a one-pitch pitcher. He threw a slider for a first-pitch strike, rang up two hitters on split-fingers and two others with his curveball.

Oh, yes: His fastball averaged 95 mph and topped out at 98.

He had not thrown more than 55 pitches this season, and so was limited to 62. That's why the outing was so short. A 23-pitch first inning, featuring a battle that lasted into double-digit pitches, probably cost him another hitter or two.

"I felt like I could have thrown 80," Mathieson said.

He would have been allowed to throw as many as 80 in his next start. If that had gone well, he might have replaced Oswalt in the rotation instead of Kendrick, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

"He's been throwing as well as we've seen him throw," Amaro said.

Instead, Mathieson will replace Kendrick as the Phillies' long reliever and likely will be available whenever Kendrick pitches, in case Kendrick needs long relief.

Mathieson was called up in early May, when Oswalt first went on the DL with back trouble, and got into two games, allowing two hits and no runs. He was a September call-up last year, but he was just a body then.

This is different. This is a sliver of a chance, but it is a chance Mathieson doubted during his "nightmare" string of injuries. It is a chance made possible, perhaps, by his magic cocoon.

Which, by the way, he still owns. He has looked into its resale value and figures he could unload it for as much as $13,000.

Will he?

"Uh . . . probably not." *

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