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‘Writhing in pain’: Yankees’ Mike King’s ‘incredible’ road back from rare injury
2 months ago  ::  Jan 23, 2023 - 1:13PM #1
Posts: 7,192

Life couldn’t have been going much better for Mike King. After years of toiling as a middling prospect, the righthander had suddenly transformed into an elite reliever for the first-place Yankees, the team he loved growing up in Rhode Island. He was nearly selected to his first American League All-Star squad. A million-dollar payday in the offseason seemed likely. He was just months from proposing to his girlfriend. It was late July.

Then, out of nowhere on the mound at Camden Yards, like the morning mist over the neighboring Baltimore Harbor, everything King had worked for seemingly vaporized.

“I felt my elbow pop,” he told The Athletic in a telephone interview last week. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

But, deep down, King had a clue.

Weeks of concealing his pain had finally led to the destruction of one of the bones in his elbow that few people know even exists. He had fractured his olecranon crown — the tip of his elbow. It’s a relatively rare injury in the major leagues. Dr. Armin Tehrany, a Manhattan-based orthopedic surgeon, called it a rare injury among fully developed athletes.

“They’re usually happening from overuse,” said Tehrany, who didn’t treat King but has treated injuries like his. “That tends to happen much more in young teenagers. As they get older, the likelihood of that overuse is lower. So it’s unusual to see this.”

When it happened, pitching coach Matt Blake was in shock.

“I was like, ‘Wait. He broke his elbow?’” Blake said.

Friend and teammate Clay Holmes was devastated. Holmes was the only person on the Yankees whom King confided in about his arm pain, but King had done it only hours before his elbow snapped.

“It was tough to see,” Holmes said.

Today, King, 27, can laugh about the nightmare. Six months after renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Altchek sliced open his elbow and inserted a pair of metal plates and screws, King believes he’s on track to be back in the Yankees’ Opening Day bullpen come March 30. Blake didn’t dismiss the idea either. General manager Brian Cashman has said the club hopes King will be ready for Game 1.

When King thinks back to the night his feel-good story took a devastating twist, he has no regrets.

“I tell people,” he said, “there’s a silver lining.”

Life couldn’t have been going much worse for King. As he lay on the medical table in the visitors’ clubhouse, athletic trainer Tim Lentych examined his elbow. Nothing. And then Lentych pressed his forearm.

“I was writhing in pain,” King said.

But King’s ulnar collateral ligament — the band that holds together the upper arm and the forearm — seemed intact, at least to Lentych. UCL tears have become increasingly common, especially in recent years as many young pitchers seek to throw harder than their bodies allow, as often as possible. Recovery from a torn UCL often requires a procedure to reconstruct the ligament, known as Tommy John surgery, and recovery can take as long as 18 months.

If King’s UCL had torn, there was a chance he’d miss not just the rest of 2022, but all of 2023 — stalling his career on the launchpad just as it was ready for takeoff.

“My mind was definitely spinning,” he said.

An X-ray revealed that King had fractured his elbow in a way few major leaguers had. It happened to pitchers Joel Zumaya and Gavin Floyd while they were on the mound. Second baseman Ozzie Albies did it in Double A in 2016. Elvis Andrus fractured the bone on a hit-by-pitch. King said he didn’t even know it had happened to someone in the majors before.

But it would be weeks before King would know for sure whether his UCL was, in fact, healthy. Due to the position of the break, King couldn’t even extend his arm for an MRI that would show whether he needed Tommy John surgery.

The shock of it all made King wonder in the moment if all this could have been avoided.

The first moment King felt any sign of trouble in his elbow was 36 days before it finally blew out.

King threw a scoreless eighth inning with two strikeouts and a walk against the Rays at Yankee Stadium on June 16. He felt a bit of soreness right after the outing, but it went away in the euphoria that came moments later when Anthony Rizzo clubbed a solo shot to walk off the Rays.

But King kept quiet. He didn’t want to go on the injured list. Plus, at the rate with which Yankees players were getting hurt, they might have wanted to initiate triage in their own clubhouse.

The same day, the Yankees had put Luis Severino on the COVID-19 IL. In the month prior, back-end relievers Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green got hurt, with Green needing his own Tommy John surgery that ended his season. In the next month, relievers Ron Marinaccio and Miguel Castro would need IL stints, in addition to another trip to the IL for Severino. King felt that if he was healthy enough to pitch, he needed to be available.

Holmes said that some of the mental training players receive may make them feel less inclined to seek help for an injury when they need it.

“We’re trained to hang on to every little bit of hope that things could get better or to focus on the best possible outcome,” Holmes said. “It’s kind of how we’re trained to think. So when you’re dealing with an injury, it’s hard to really sit back and think with a clear mind: What’s the best thing?”

And because King was pitching so well, he said it was easy to believe keeping his mouth shut was the right move. He had a 2.55 ERA over 21 games and 35 1/3 innings when he first felt pain, making him a rare and extremely valuable multi-inning threat manager Aaron Boone could deploy at any time. He was just as good pitching around the pain, posting a 1.98 ERA over his final 12 appearances. Blake said the Yankees track all their pitchers’ performance — from velocity to arm angles — not just to detect areas of improvement, but also to assess their health. King displayed no warning signs.

But, Blake acknowledged, the Yankees are still working to perfect communication between players and their medical staff about injuries.

“We’ve got to make an environment where guys feel like they can say those things,” Blake said. “We’ve got to look out for the players’ health first and foremost. Those are the kind of conversations we’re having with the training room and the strength staff. ‘How do we monitor these thresholds?’ And obviously trying to fine-tune the dials of what these conversations look like in different spaces so we’re not overreacting when someone tells us (that) they’re a little sore, so we do shut them down, and (then) they don’t want to talk to us later. That’s the hard part with these things.”

King’s injury was especially tough on Holmes. The pair had been pregame throwing partners most of the season, and Holmes noticed something was wrong with King by the way he was warming up before their July 22 game against the Orioles. There was no juice. King was holding back.

So, Holmes asked King, who finally admitted the problem, and the pair talked throughout batting practice about what King should do next. Holmes even thought about telling a trainer about King’s pain to save him from himself, but didn’t want to violate the trust of his friend. King had told Holmes that he wanted to pitch through it.

So Holmes exhaled later that night when King retired both hitters he faced in the seventh, but was holding his breath when his buddy went back out for the eighth. Holmes watched from the bullpen as King got the first out and then forced Ramón Urías to an 0-2 count, threw a slider in the dirt and hopped off the mound in pain. The whole stadium heard him yell in agony.

“I just knew,” Holmes said.

Holmes came in to finish the game. King spent the next couple of hours on the trainer’s table. At one point, he was surrounded by the team’s three leaders — Boone, right fielder Aaron Judge and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. They all offered comfort. One even helped him take off his cleats. Though the Yankees won, the postgame mood in the clubhouse was grim.

“You say a quick prayer,” Judge said at the time, “and pray for a good outcome.”

Life finally seems just fine for King these days. After the elbow surgery, an MRI showed his UCL was “thick, strong and fully intact,” he said. He started throwing again in mid-November. He said his arm feels so good that the Yankees have had to hold him back from pushing himself too hard. And on Jan. 13, the Yankees and King agreed to a $1.3 million salary for the 2023 season, avoiding an arbitration hearing.

King said that Altchek told him that if he had informed the Yankees of his pain the very moment he felt it in June, tests almost definitely would have revealed that he had a stress fracture. The surgery — and its six-to-eight-month recovery timetable — would have been the same as what it was after it blew out, and he would have missed the rest of the regular season regardless.

By pitching through the pain, King more than likely earned himself a few more bucks through the salary arbitration system, which rewards pitchers for things like appearances and a low ERA. And he helped hold up a beleaguered Yankees bullpen for as long as he could.

Plus, it was a matter of pride.

“I would have felt like such a wuss if I actually said something when I was doing well and feeling OK once I was out there,” King said.

Blake said he expects King will return to the dominance he showed in 2022. After all, betting against King hasn’t worked out.

Blake said that he was catching up with some of the Yankees’ amateur scouts recently. He spent six years as an area scout for the Yankees covering New England, and he watched King as a high schooler and at Boston College. He joked to them to imagine a scout back then forecasting King, who was throwing high-80s in college, to be a late-inning reliever with a 98 mph fastball and a vicious slider on a team with World Series aspirations.

“You would have been laughed out of the room,” Blake said. “His growth has been incredible.”

Now, King is healthy and worry-free. He’s back on track to proving the experts wrong and to reclaiming the vital role he played for the team he adored as a kid. He’s made his million bucks. And his girlfriend, Sheila, said yes.

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