Detroit — This is a milestone week for Tigers catcher Jake Rogers.
It’s been 17 weeks since Dr. Keith Meister performed Tommy John surgery and replaced the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. When he showed up for his rehab work at the TMI Sports Medicine complex in Arlington, Texas, on Monday, Rogers was cleared to begin tossing medicine balls with two hands.
Passing these milestones, especially when he passes them a week ahead of schedule like this one, are more than little victories. They are the targets, the life blood, that motivate and sustain him through this physically and mentally arduous recovery process.
“This is a pretty big deal,” Rogers said Tuesday, driving back from another three-hour grind at TMI. “Starting to throw stuff and putting a little more pressure on the ligament.”
The next milestone comes in five weeks. That’s when hopes to be able to throw medicine balls with one hand. Then, five weeks after that, which would be six months after the surgery, he hopes to start the first baby steps of his actual throwing program.
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A couple of weeks after that, if all goes well, he’ll be back in the batting cages.
“I’m just taking it week by week,” Rogers said. “But everything is going good. … ’m trying to come back as soon as I can, but I don’t know when that will be. I’m just putting these big milestones on my calendar and, just like this one, keep checking them off.”
In a normal year, Rogers would already have relocated his treatments and workouts to the Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland, more than a month ahead of the official report date for pitchers and catchers.
But normal years have been scarce recently. First the pandemic, now a labor dispute between players and owners that has the industry locked up and the players locked out.
“I won’t miss a beat,” Rogers said. “I have everything I need right here.”
Well, almost everything. Besides Tigers’ lefty Tyler Alexander, who also trains at TMI, Rogers is mostly rehabbing in isolation.
“Just being in Lakeland would’ve been nice, just having our facilities and being around the guys,” he said. “But they have everything here. There’s a batting cage. There’ an 80-yard turf field to throw outside. Honestly, they have everything I need as far as the rehab stuff goes.”
After all that Rogers has fought through the last couple of years — being kept in Triple-A all of 2020 after making his big-league debut in 2019, finally earning the starting catcher spot last May only to be shut down with the elbow injury on July 18 — a little isolation certainly won’t derail him.
“I’ve had to learn the hard way through some struggles,” he said. “I’ve definitely been through some lows on the baseball side of things.”
It was not a coincidence that the Tigers started playing winning baseball the day Rogers came up from Toledo. They were 9-24 on May 8. Rogers made his first start and contributed a two-run single in a five-run seventh inning and the Tigers beat the Twins 7-3.
They went 34-27 from May 8 through July 18. Not only did Rogers help settle down the pitching staff, he contributed offensively, with a 120 OPS-plus, hitting six home runs, five doubles and three triples with 17 RBIs.
The Tigers’ long-awaited catcher of the future had arrived. Then, in a blink, he was gone.
“It was tough,” he said. “We were playing well. I was doing pretty good. It was about as fun as baseball can get.”
That’s why he initially fought so hard against the surgery. Even though he knew in his heart the elbow was bad, he spent four weeks in Lakeland trying to rehab the pain away.
“I tried everything in my power to keep playing,” he said. “I was pushing. I told AJ (Hinch, manager), ‘I want to be out there. I want to help you win. We’re doing good and I don’t want to ruin that.’ I guess I was in denial. I knew in the back of my head it wasn’t very good.”
He accepted his fate after he tried to throw again and the excruciating pain was still there, four weeks later.
“I got through it,” he said. “Once I decided to get the surgery, I was at peace. I know Dr. Meister is very good at what he does. I just went with it and I told myself I was going to crush rehab and come back even better.”
In the meantime, the Tigers traded for a starting catcher, acquiring veteran Tucker Barnhart from the Reds. Another mental hurdle for Rogers to clear?
Not so much.
“I knew they were going to look for a guy,” Rogers said. “I knew they had two good catchers in (Dustin) Garneau and (Eric) Haase, but like every year, they were going to sign some guy. I wasn’t really worried when they (traded for) Tucker. I was a great get for the Tigers. He’s a great guy. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him.
“I think he’s going to help the Tigers. It’s a great addition.”
Barnhart turns 31 on Friday. And while the Tigers picked up his $7.5 million option for 2022, there has been no talk of an extension beyond that. The Tigers, it would appear, are keeping an avenue open for Rogers in 2023, if not sooner.
“It wasn’t necessarily a blow to me,” Rogers said. “I was excited for the team when they got him. I figured they’d go out and get someone, as they should. I want them to believe in me, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do.
“Like I always say, I’m just going to keep my nose to the grindstone and work hard. Whatever happens will happen.”
Pitchers typically take 12 to 18 months to fully recover from Tommy John surgery. Catchers typically come back faster. Rogers will be a year out of surgery in September, but that milestone isn’t on his calendar yet. He’s just itching for March, when maybe he can get out with the guys on the back fields at Joker Marchant Stadium and hear the crack of the bat and baseballs popping into gloves again.
“I just can’t wait for the day when I am healthy,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it so much. I already miss it. I love the game and being around the guys. I hope if I work hard now, it will pay off later and I will be able to come back early.”