Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Elbow Room: How Scott Mathieson's Leg is Pitching Him Back to the Majors

scott mathieson philadelphia phillybroadcasterBY ERIC LONGENHAGEN A Canadian kid throwing a baseball?  You can count the Canucks who get paid to do that on one hand.  If you’re a strapping young male from the Great White North, chances are you’re being fitted for a pair of skates right now.  Even though great hockey players are Canada’s second most coveted export (First? Those delicious Maple Cookies that make Oreos taste like dogfood), our neighbors to the north have given us a slew of impact baseball players as well.  Sadly, Phillies minor league pitcher Scott Mathieson is not one of those guys.
Originally from Vancouver, the Phillies drafted Scott Mathieson in the 17th round of the 2002 draft.  He struggled early in his pro career, due to the severe spike in quality over his competition as he transitioned from something called the “British Columbia Premier Baseball League” into professional baseball (hardy Americana, that is).
Slowly but surely, Mathieson started to put things together. His fastball was topping out around 100mph. Scouts also saw a hard slider, viable curveball and a promising changeup mixed in to Mathieson’s repertoire.  By 2006, he had become the top right-handed pitching prospect in the Phillies’ system and pitched his way on to the Major League roster by the middle of the season.  Then, in an early September outing of that year, Mathieson felt an odd sensation in his pitching elbow.  His downward spiral had begun.
Mathieson would need Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Reconstruction, or what is now commonly referred to as “Tommy John Surgery”, a procedure named after the first professional athlete to undergo the Frakenstinian operation.  When Tommy John is performed, a player’s UCL is replaced by a tendon from somewhere else on the athlete’s (or a cadaver’s) body, usually from the foot, knee or hamstring.  This really isn’t a big deal.  Lots of baseball players have Tommy John Surgeries, return to the diamond and play just as well, if not better than they did before having the procedure.  Pitch velocity returns first, while command and movement of those pitches takes a little longer.  Success rates for Tommy John are staggeringly high, and players tend to return to action almost exactly 12 months from the day of the surgery.
But not Mathieson.
After months of strenuous rehabilitation, he returned to the mound at the end of 2007 and pitched in just seven minor league games before he blew out the elbow again.  He had two more surgeries, including another Tommy John, missed all of the 2008 season recovering, and drifted into the subconscious of even the most prospect-minded Phillies fan.  He became a ghost, effectively, and had to start all over, at the bottom of the minor league rung, for the third time.  Even the unluckiest Chutes and Ladders player would be sympathetic.

maple cookies canada philadelphia phillybroadcaster
These are the Maple Cookies I was talking about. If any Canadians are reading this, we’ll trade you back Pamela Anderson for two trucks full of these bad boys.
But back he came.  Mathieson worked his way up to AA Reading in 2009 and pitched all of 2010 at AAA Lehigh Valley, a step away from the charter jets and swanky hotel rooms of The Show.  I had the pleasure of watching Mathieson pitch all of last year.  His fastball was back in the upper 90s (mph).  He was mowing down batters with extreme prejudice.  He stayed healthy all year.  You can’t help but root for a guy whose elbow is probably now made of a dead guy’s leg.  So I was sure that after a terrific 2010 season that he’d make the big league roster out of spring training in 2011 and make an impact in the Phillies bullpen this year.
But again, like an epic fail on repeat, Mathieson’s velocity took an inexplicable step backward.  He was topping out at 92mph at the beginning of the 2011 campaign.  I couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong with him.  I thought it might all be over.  Then he came in to Wednesday’s game.
There was practically a vapor trail coming off the ball.  Spectators gasped as they saw readings of 98, 99, 99, 98, 97, 99, light up the stadium’s radar gun.  A crowd of minor league baseball fans who were drifting into delirium from the scorching summer heat suddenly began stirring.  It was alive.
How and why Scott Mathieson suddenly got his ungodly heater back escapes me.  Was he slightly injured at the beginning of the year?  Out of shape?  Getting little sleep from watching late-night “Kenny vs. Spenny” reruns?  Has his strange workload positively impacted his arm strength? (Normally relievers pitch one inning every other game, or so.  Recently, Mathieson has been pitching two innings per appearance and getting three or four days rest between them.  I’ve never seen that before.)  In all reality, I have no fucking clue.  All I know is that if the Scott Mathieson I saw Wednesday night is here to stay, then he won’t be staying in the minor leagues too much longer.  He’ll be embarrassing major league hitters in front of thousands of paying customers who have long since forgotten his once buzz-worthy name.

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