A few days ago, Tommy Hunter walked back into the Phillies’ clubhouse, his right forearm shielded by a cast after season-ending surgery. The next day, David Robertson announced that he, too, will head to the operating table for a procedure that will keep him from pitching again this year and maybe most of next.
Watching from across the room, Seranthony Dominguez could hardly believe it.
- Trading for Jason Vargas might help secure a wild-card spot, but it won’t solve the Phillies’ most profound pitching problem | Analysis
- After failing to deal for a top starter at MLB trade deadline, Phillies put focus on offseason for improving their rotation
- Phillies reliever Tommy Hunter is done for the season after undergoing surgery
“I would’ve never thought," Dominguez said with the aid of a team translator, "that at this point in the season we would be going through something like this in the bullpen."
It isn't just that the Phillies have had eight relievers take at least one turn on the injured list. It's what has happened to many when they tried to come back.
Hunter missed the season’s first three months with a strained flexor muscle, made five appearances (all scoreless), then tore the flexor tendon.
Robertson, who made the fifth-most appearances of any reliever in baseball from 2009 to 2018, went down with a flexor strain in mid-April, endured a series of stalls in his rehab, then made his injury worse last month when it finally seemed it might be getting better.
Pat Neshek returned from a sore right shoulder only to tear his left hamstring.
And on, and on, and on.
You will excuse Dominguez, then, if he proceeds with caution in coming back from a strained ligament in his right elbow. The injury occurred nearly two months ago, at which time he saw prominent surgeon James Andrews for a second opinion and figured for sure that he would need to undergo the dreaded ligament-reconstruction (Tommy John) surgery that comes with a 12- to 18-month recovery. But Andrews prescribed rest and rehab, giving Dominguez hope that he will pitch again before the season is over.
The 24-year-old reliever remains hopeful. He says he feels good -- quick, find some wood for him to knock! -- after he plays catch every few days, 40-50 throws, 90 feet from his target.
Although he has not yet been told explicitly when he can get more aggressive or progress to a mound, the build-up might begin Monday after he reports to the Phillies’ spring-training complex in Clearwater, Fla. It’s OK, he says, of the deliberate progression. Rarely does anything good come from trying to rush back.
But the Phillies passed on acquiring a big-name reliever at the trade deadline. While the division-leading Atlanta Braves, for instance, loaded up their bullpen with Shane Greene from the Detroit Tigers, Mark Melancon from the San Francisco Giants, and Chris Martin from the Texas Rangers, the Phillies signed 34-year-old Blake Parker last week after he got designated for assignment by the Minnesota Twins.
Dominguez, then, represents their last best chance to make a bullpen upgrade, presuming he's actually able to do what Hunter and Robertson couldn't.
"I really don't know how I'm going to come back, how good I'm going to be when I come back," said Dominguez, who seems unlikely to return before September. "Obviously that's the goal, to be able to come back and help the team for a playoff push or in the playoffs, whatever the situation may be. But what I want to do is be 100 percent healthy. That's my main focus right now."
While he heals, Dominguez has redirected his energy to figure out how he might recapture his rookie-year success.
The Phillies called up Dominguez last May, plugged him into a late-inning role, and watched him post a 2.95 earned-run average, 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and 16 saves in 58 innings over 53 appearances.
Like many of his teammates, he hit a wall in August and September. He lost a fraction of the zip on his fastball and gave up a few more hits and runs. Overall, though, he was both a bright spot and a key member of a homegrown core that includes Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, and Scott Kingery.
But Dominguez’s velocity didn’t return consistently in spring training. He showed flashes of the 98-99-mph heater from last summer but averaged only 97.3 mph in 27 appearances before he went on the injured list.
"I've watched a few videos of myself just facing batters and stuff to see if I was doing something weird, if my mechanics were off, just looking for little things here and there," Dominguez said. "But honestly, most of the time I've been very focused on getting healthy as soon as possible to help the team."
Dominguez couldn't say the last time he felt 100 percent, only that he began noticing during an early June series in San Diego that the normal tightness that he feels in his elbow after he pitches wasn't subsiding as quickly as usual. He made the trainers aware and left a June 4 appearance against the Padres after facing three batters in the eighth inning. He hasn't thrown off a mound since.
It was just par for the course for the Phillies' luckless relievers, who must be wondering what they ever did to incur the wrath of the baseball gods.
Bullpens, after all, tend to be superstitious places filled with pitchers who are slaves to routine. It isn't unusual to hear about relievers who sit in the same spot during games while they're in the midst of a stretch of scoreless outings.
Dominguez laughed at the suggestion that Phillies relievers might consider collecting four-leaf clovers or rabbit’s feet to reverse their fortunes.
"It's interesting. It's not that you find humor in it, but you definitely find ways to cope with it," Dominguez said.
“For me, one way is to be very open with your teammates about your injury and maybe ask about how to prevent it or how to take better care of your body, your arm. But if you actually sit down and think about it, it’s part of the game. There’s certain things that you cannot control. The only thing you can control is that, when you’re healthy, you get all your work done and you get on the mound and you try to perform as well as you can.”