A sight for sore eyes, and a yearning heart

Cade Cavalli returns to the bullpen practice mound this week

For Washington Nationals fans, they needed some encouraging news, and they got it today when Cade Cavalli returned to the pitching mound in West Palm Beach for a bullpen session. For the first time since he snapped his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow on March 14 of last year, the Nats’ first round pick of 2020 was throwing free and easy this morning.

The injury happened just 51.2 miles up the road when Cavalli was innocently pitching into the third inning of a Spring Training game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie and registered an 88 mph pitch and winced and shook his arm. The batter, Brandon Nimmo, immediately motioned to catcher Keibert Ruiz, and the umpire, to get to the mound. There was the uh oh from everyone in the Nats’ dugout and bullpen on that day. Sometimes a pitcher has signs of elbow discomfort before a UCL tear — but for Cavalli, it just happened with no warning.

The UCL injury would require the dreaded Tommy John surgery which was performed by Dr. Keith Meister of TMI Sports Medicine in Dallas, Texas on March 22, a source told us at the time. Today marks one week shy of 11 months from the surgery for the right-handed pitcher.

“I just want to forget about [the injury], and move on. I’ve got a new elbow. It’s a new me. That’s how I’m approaching it. It’s been a great 11 months.”

“It’s something that happens, and I believe like I said to you guys 11 months ago, it’s how you look at it and how you approach it. If you just approach it with a positive mindset — that this is a blessing in this moment, and I believe God is putting me through something to get me stronger to be able to help this club in the long-run — that’s what my mindset’s been.”

— Cavalli said to the media today

The Nationals’ sports medicine department is very versed in the protocols and timetables from UCL surgery, having the most infamous case since pitcher Tommy John himself went through the first surgery in 1974 to set medical and baseball history at the time, until Stephen Strasburg went through his in June of 2010. John’s name became synonymous with the surgery. The Nats have had dozens of pitchers go through it. This has become so common in baseball that the Nats this year named Joel Hanrahan as their rehab pitching coach to just work with the recovering pitchers at their minor league facilities.

After six months of strict rehab work, Cavalli showed on his Instagram his first soft tosses in late September as a major milestone towards his return. As the team’s top pitching prospect, he was tabbed to be in the starting rotation last year until the injury put that on the shelf. Some fantasy baseball sites had him as a Rookie of the Year possibility last year prior to the UCL tear.

Cavalli is very familiar with the West Palm Beach facility since he did most of his rehabilitation work there. Two times last season, the team flew him to Washington D.C. to see the team doctors and spend time with the teammates. It is all about process and trying to keep a positive mental attitude at a tough stretch of time. The visits to see his teammates at Nationals Park was a good reward for the 25 year old pitcher.

“I think he’s on track. His progression has been great. He’s a diligent worker, and he’s a really good patient. He follows the protocol to the T, and our guys always know you’re going to have to pull him back a little bit. He follows them up to the edge, and we pull him back a little bit. That’s how I think we want our guys.”

— Rizzo said to the media about Cavalli

He has been targeting an official return to the majors sometime in June, which would be 14+ months removed from surgery. Technically, 14 months exactly would be May 22, but general manager Mike Rizzo always has been targeting June which also hopefully is a strategic date that would allow Cavalli to then pitch the rest of the 2024 season without a shutdown due to the Nats’ strict innings limit they impose for all TJ survivors in their system.

The protocol tries to keep the pitchers at this stage of a first bullpen session to not throw at maximum velo. It is working back to those levels in these throwing session. Cavalli admitted that he just can’t just go out and throw as hard as he wants. He said he has to be strict on the intensity level which requires patience. He made the point that he feels normal now but must not “rip this pitch right now.” That is all part of the process and being smart about doing everything to get back on that MLB mound again.

Noting that Cavalli looked slimmed down, he later said that his fiancée, Maddie, got him on a better food regimen. She was a college basketball guard for the University of Tulsa, and has spent the last 11 months as his go-to during this rehab. Cavalli said that it certainly helps having a fiancée who understands sports injuries and rehab.

If all goes well, Cavalli will be the star pitcher that evaluators think he can be. When Cavalli is ready, it will mean one pitcher will exit the starting rotation. A year ago, nobody envisioned Jake Irvin as a future rotation piece, and he was the team’s best starter in the second half of the season before he hit the wall of stamina in mid-September. To show you how good Irvin was, from June 15 to September 9 of last season, his ERA was 3.59. If Irvin stays, it could be Patrick Corbin or Trevor Williams to the bullpen.

A top-4 in the starting rotation by the summer could be Cavalli, Irvin, MacKenzie Gore, and Josiah Gray. Who knows, maybe this rotation can live up to the high hopes that they had as prospects. Cavalli, Gore, and Gray have all spent time as consensus Top-100 MiLB prospects. Both Cavalli and Gore were first round draft picks, and Gray was a potential first rounder who slipped to the second round in 2018. That draft pedigree matters to some, Irvin was a fourth rounder by the Nats, and was picked in that same draft as Gray.

“I’m sure looking forward to seeing him pitch,” Rizzo said of Cavalli. “I think he’s going to help us immensely, one of those starting pitchers we all covet.”

Everything is about at least meeting the expectations, and All-Stars are made by exceeding them. Cavalli is not looking that far ahead. He is still taking baby steps to work his way back. His general manager hopes he is the ace that this team needs, and covertly coded it as, “one of those starting pitchers we all covet.” We will know in the future what Cavalli is, and for now, enjoy this dose of encouraging news.

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