Mariners Insider Blog

Mariners notebook: Zych’s return represents a medical breakthrough

Reliever Tony Zych feels stronger than ever after undergoing a medical procedure never before tried on a big-league pitcher.
Reliever Tony Zych feels stronger than ever after undergoing a medical procedure never before tried on a big-league pitcher. AP

Reliever Tony Zych is something of a medical pioneer in that he is the first major-league pitcher to attempt a comeback after undergoing a biceps tendon transfer in his shoulder.

That makes his scoreless outing Sunday more notable than might otherwise be the case. It was his first big-league appearance since Dr. Stephen O’Brien performed the surgery Oct. 11 in New York.

"He kind of invented this surgery for this issue," Zych said. "He had it himself when he was a player in college for football. He figured out a way to fix it. No other major-league pitchers (have had it).

"I was the first one, so it was a little bit of a trial. But he’s done many of them. A lot of athletes. Just not at this level. An unbelievable doctor. He did a great job and has been helping me the whole way. And I feel great."

Initial results are encouraging. Zych pushed his fastball into the mid-90s Sunday during his four-pitch outing. That’s not quite back to where it was before the surgery, but it was just one brief appearance.

"Honestly, I haven’t looked (at velocity)," he said. "I’m just going off how it feels, and it feels great. The ball is moving late, and I’ve got even more life on my pitches. I’m excited about it."

Zych experienced no day-after issues Monday and when asked whether he could pitch that night — going back-to-back is generally seen as the final hurdle for a reliever returning from an injury — he responded with an emphatic: "Heck, yeah."

All positive.

The Mariners acquired Zych, now 26, in an April 2, 2015 deal from the Chicago Cubs for cash considerations. He made 40 minor-league appearances before the Mariners promoted him for a September look.

Zych responded by compiling a 2.45 ERA in 13 outings while striking out 24 in 18 1/3 innings. His upper-90s fastball positioned him as the bullpen’s primary power right-hander when the 2016 season opened.

Then his shoulder started barking. He pitched through the pain over the season’s first month, when he struck out 19 while allowing four earned runs in 12 innings, but after a May 1 outing against Kansas City, the pain proved too much.

The Mariners put him on the disabled list as doctors tried to figure out the problem. There was no structural damage in the shoulder. It just ached — and ached to the point where he needed extra recovery time between appearance.

The initial plan was rest.

Zych didn’t pitch again until an Aug. 12 rehab outing in the Arizona Rookie League, but the problem persisted. He made six more appearances, including two in the big leagues, before getting shut down for good in late August.

Finally, doctors identified the problem, and Zych opted for surgery.

"The long head of the biceps was in a groove," he said. "They took that out, moved it over and tied it into the short head. I have, essentially, one tendon running up instead of two.

"With the tendon out of the groove, there’s no more pinching. That was the biggest thing. It was getting locked between the joint and slipping out of the groove and creating another groove. That’s why I was feeling so much pain."

Now, he’s pain-free. A pioneer who appears well on the road to recovery.

"It feels strong," Zych said, "and I’ve been working it pretty hard since the surgery. Everything is good."

HEADING OUT

Plans call for shortstop Jean Segura to test his recovery from a strained right hamstring by heading out for a brief minor-league rehab playing assignment.

"He had a good workout (Tuesday)," manager Scott Servais said. "He got out and ran. He feels good about where he’s at. We want to get him out and get him a game or two.

"We’re still looking for him (to return) at some point in the Oakland series."

Where Segura is headed is still uncertain, although the likeliest spot is Hi-A Modesto because that will keep him relatively close to the Mariners, who open a four-game series Thursday at Oakland.

Segura batted .313 (10-for-32) through eight games before the hamstring injury forced his removed from the April 10 game against Houston at Safeco Field. He is eligible to return Friday from the 10-day disabled list.

MOTTER’S ROLE

Utilityman Taylor Motter entered Tuesday with nine hits in 22 at-bats over six games since replacing Segura at shortstop, and his nine hits include four doubles and three homers.

"I think it’s helping that I’m getting my fastballs," he said. "I hit a slider out the other night. I'm getting pitches up in the zone, pitches that I can handle. And I’m not missing them."

Segura is expected to be activated Friday, but that doesn’t mean Motter heads back to the bench.

"I think it kind of fits into our original plan," manager Scott Servais said. "He’s so versatile. He can run into the outfield. He can play different parts of the infield. Now, you can start look at giving a guy a day off…"

Motter could find himself in the outfield, particularly against left-handed pitchers, and offers an alternative to a struggling Danny Valencia at first base.

"He’s earned a right to be in the lineup on a more consistent basis," Servais said, "and we’ll do everything we can to keep him in there."

LOOKING AHEAD

Three things to note heading into Wednesday’s pitching matchup between right-hander Felix Hernandez and Miami right-hander Edinson Volquez:

***Hernandez is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA in two career starts against the Marlins, but he hasn’t faced them since 2011. Volquez is 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA in eight games against the Mariners, including 2-0 and 2.29 in three starts at Safeco,

***Only two Marlins have ever faced Hernandez. Ichiro Suzuki is 3-for-14 with five strikeouts, Giancarlo Stanton had three swinging strikeouts in the June 24, 2011 game at Safeco Field.

***They are small sample sizes, but the middle of the Mariners’ lineup has hit well against Volquez: Robinson Cano is 3-for-6, Nelson Cruz is 3-for-5 and Kyle Seager is 3-for-9.

MINOR DETAILS

Hi-A Modesto second baseman Chris Mariscal went 1-for-4 Monday in a 12-4 loss to Stockton (Athletics), which extended his streak of getting at least one hit in all 10 of the Nuts’ games.

Mariscal also has reached base safely at least once in 37 straight games, dating back to last season at Lo-A Clinton. He is batting .370 (50-for-135) in that span with 16 walks.

The Mariners selected Mariscal in the 14th round of the 2014 MLB Draft.

***The Mariners reacquired infielder Nelson Ward by signing him to a minor-league contract and assigning him to Double-A Arkansas. Ward, 24, became a free agent when released March 29 by San Diego.

The Mariners selected Ward in the 12th round of the 2014 MLB Draft but traded him to the Padres along with pitcher Enyel De Los Santos on Nov. 12, 2015 for veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit.

Ward batted .221 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 123 games last season at Double-A San Antonio.

SHORT HOPS

Entering Tuesday, the Mariners are 14-7 in interleague play since the start of last season, including 8-3 at home…Mariners starters, through Monday, had allowed just one walk over 25 1/3 innings over the previous four games…several former Mariners have birthdays on Wednesday: relievers Joe Beimel and George Sherrill are 40, outfielder Jose Cruz is 43, and infielder Spike Owen is 56.

LOOKING BACK

It was 16 years ago Wednesday — April 19, 2001 — that Kazuhiro Sasaki closed out a 3-2 victory over Anaheim for his eighth save, a franchise record for April. The previous record was seven by Norm Charlton in 1997.

Sasaki finished the month with 13 saves, which remains a club record for April.

No other Mariners pitcher has ever had more than eight April saves since Sasaki set the record: It’s been done three times: Eddie Guardado in 2005, David Aardsma in 2010 and Tom Wilhelmsen in 2013.

ON TAP

The Mariners and Marlins conclude their three-game series at 12:40 p.m. Wednesday at Safeco Field when right-hander Felix Hernandez (1-1 with a 2.95) opposes Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez (0-1, 3.45).

The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN and the Mariners Radio Network, including mariners.com (for subscribers to MLB.tv).

The first 20,000 fans through the gates receive an Ichiro Suzuki double bobblehead doll.

The Mariners then hit the road for a 10-game trip to Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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