By Abby Sims
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Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to return to the mound for the Yankees on Sunday against the Blue Jays and, according to Joe Girardi, will have a 75-pitch limit.
With the club essentially out of playoff contention, the purpose of this outing — and perhaps one additional start that can be squeezed in before season’s end — can only be to see if Tanaka’s elbow holds up well enough to avoid off season Tommy John surgery.
Diagnosed with a small tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, Tanaka is attempting to become one of few pitchers with this injury to return to competition without surgery.
The 25-year-old right-hander, in the first year of a seven-year contract, last pitched in a game on July 8, after which he revealed the issue with his elbow. This followed four uncharacteristic performances in which he posted a 4.35 ERA — a huge spike up from the 1.99 ERA he’d demonstrated in 14 starts to that point.
Several medical experts agreed in July that Tanaka had the potential to avoid surgery. He was expected to return to the mound after PRP injections and six weeks of rehab, and is only slightly behind that schedule, having progressed through a throwing program in which he gradually increased the number of pitches.
Only once — on Aug. 29 — was it reported that Tanaka experienced a setback, as he complained of general soreness throughout his right arm after a practice session. However, on Sept. 6, after throwing just 35 pitches in the bullpen, Tanaka commented that he felt “way stronger… I think the fatigue is done.”
All in all, it has been a rather quick progression back to a major league mound, particularly in light of the blip in Tanaka’s recovery.
Even if he successfully completes one or two 75-pitch starts without complaint, there is no assurance that Tanaka will be able to avoid surgery. It is not likely that the tensile strength of his torn ligament is fully restored as of yet, and — even if he passes the first test — only repeated demands will determine the outcome.
If these cumulative demands exceed the ability of the ligament to withstand the stress, it will break down once again.
Clearly, the sooner it is determined whether Tanaka needs surgery, the better. He will need a year to rebound should that be the eventual answer.
Follow Abby Sims on Twitter at @abcsims
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