Stutes waits for his fastball to return

Maikel Franco rips a base hit against the Tampa Bay Rays, impressing Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg.
Maikel Franco rips a base hit against the Tampa Bay Rays, impressing Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2014

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - The misadventure that was Mike Stutes' outing Monday ceased with a groundout by the ninth Tampa Bay hitter of the seventh inning. Stutes sauntered to the visitors' dugout at scorching Charlotte Sports Park. He flicked his black glove at the wooden bench.

He admitted to overthrowing. Bad luck and poor defense conspired to derail the inning into a five-run blight. It was recorded as one horrible afternoon with the same value as Stutes' first appearance on Feb. 27, a scoreless inning, as he lobbies for a job in the Phillies' bullpen.

"All of those things were just one little inch," Stutes said. "It wasn't going my way."

Stutes, 27, has endured enough of these days to forget about them. But the memories of 2011 - when Stutes emerged as a late-inning presence - are corrupted by shoulder surgery and biceps tendinitis and a fastball that lacks the life it once possessed. There are concerns about whether Stutes, a lean pitcher with violent mechanics, can regain that form.

The righthander remained confident, and pointed to his previous springs as evidence.

"I've always been a guy where the velocity takes a little bit to come back," Stutes said. He predicted sharpness by the final week of Grapefruit League games.

His fastball topped out at 89 m.p.h. in Monday's 6-1 loss to the Rays, and mostly traveled at 88 m.p.h. Stutes pounded his mitt after Ray Olmedo slapped an 89-m.p.h. fastball up the middle for a single. Cole Figueroa, a minor-leaguer, smashed the next pitch, an 88-m.p.h. fastball, for a two-run double to right.

"His velocity, I would say, is down right now," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's still coming back from that injury. The lack of velocity shows that."

One scout in attendance agreed: "He's not the same pitcher."

Stutes saw it differently. He was upset about some strike calls earlier in the inning. A botched play at the plate by Lou Marson, whom Sandberg later criticized, cost one run and an out. Those are just a few reasons spring-training results require proper context.

Stutes, though, needs an impressive spring because the competition for spots is strong and his track record is erratic. He dazzled as a non-roster invitee during spring training in 2011 and parlayed that into a 57-game rookie season. Former manager Charlie Manuel entrusted him with setup responsibilities; Stutes posted a 3.63 ERA in 62 innings.

There were repercussions. He underwent surgery in June 2012 to remove a bone chip that pressed against nerves in his right rotator cuff. He returned to the majors for a month in 2013 until biceps tendinitis robbed him of the next three months. His fastball sat at 88 m.p.h. in a late-season audition that consisted of two games.

Stutes threw his fastball at an average velocity of 93 m.p.h. in 2011. He believes he can recapture that.

"I don't see any reason why it wouldn't come back," the pitcher said. "The doctor, when he did the surgery in 2012, he didn't cut through any muscle. He didn't stitch any muscle, tendons, or cartilage."

The late Lewis Yocum, a renowned orthopedist, explained to Stutes that a loss of velocity is attributed to a loss of elasticity in the muscle, which comes from scar tissue forming over inserted stitches. But Stutes never needed those.

So the loss of velocity is unexplained.

"It's been frustrating," Stutes said. "The bone chip in 2011 was, as the doctor said, a freak accident. The biceps tendinitis was from overwork."

He remembered advice from Yocum, who emphasized that there is never a straight line of recovery from shoulder problems.

"Everyone is different," Stutes said. "You could start throwing in three months and feel completely normal and fine. You could start throwing and your arm starts hurting again."

For now, Stutes will maintain faith in his body. There could come a time, however, when he must do more with less.


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