Lakeland, Fla. — It happens every morning. The clubhouse slowly empties out, his teammates are either going to the back fields to work or preparing to play in the day’s game. Or, like Sunday, they’re packing their bags and bats and boarding the bus to Sarasota.
Kyle Funkhouser would love to be among them. Instead, the Tigers’ workhorse reliever drifts in and out, impervious to the clatter, no need to check the day’s duty roster. The spikes and glove and uniform in his locker stall are unnecessary accoutrements these days. His uniform is a pair of workout shorts and a pullover. His office is the trainer’s room.
“The timing is the worst,” said Funkhouser, who has been shut down all spring with a right lat strain. “The injury seemingly isn’t too bad. But like if this would have happened in December, it would have been a quick, easy shutdown for a couple of weeks, some rehab and I still would’ve been ready for camp and the season.
“The timing was unfortunate. Kind of a gut punch.”
Funkhouser was uniquely impacted by the 99-day lockout — for worse and maybe better. The injury first happened as he was trying to ramp back up in January. Like everyone else, he had no idea how long the negotiations between the union and owners were going to take, so he didn’t really have a clear idea when he should start or how much he should push his throwing program.
“I threw a live batting practice and felt pretty good,” he said. “Then I just never really recovered after that. I don’t know if it was something that happened during the live BP or over the next couple of days.”
All he knows is, he threw on a Friday and was scheduled to throw another bullpen the following Tuesday. But on that Monday, he had to shut his throwing program down.
“Something didn’t feel right,” he said.
Had baseball been in business, Funkhouser would have been able to use the TigerTown facilities and all the coaches, doctors, trainers and physical therapists he’s used his entire pro career with the Tigers. But baseball was not in business.
So, he just stopped throwing and waited.
“The thing is, though, I got miraculously saved in a way, too, because the lockout ended,” Funkhouser said. “I was able to come in and get an MRI real quick and figure it out. If the lockout kept going another two, three, four weeks, I would’ve been sitting at home, not throwing and everything would have been pushed back even more.”
Still, the recovery process is agonizingly slow, especially for a 28-year-old who finally carved his niche in the major leagues.
It’s not like he can come in every day check a box and move on to the next step. The amount of rehab work he can do is dependent on how his body feels that day. If he’s OK, then he can do some work on the lat muscle. If not, he lets the lat rest and works on another area.
“You have to let the muscle fibers heal,” Funkhouser said. “You can rehab a little bit, like lengthen and strengthen, but you have to be really careful. You want to get some movement and blood flow through there, but you don’t want to push it too much and hurt it worse and set yourself back.”
He’s moving forward, but it’s inch-by-inch, at least that’s how it feels to him. His throwing program is completely shut down. No baseball-related activity. He thinks he’s getting close to being able to do a little more, exercising and work off the plyometrics trampoline.
“Unfortunately, it’s still day-to-day, week-to-week right now,” he said.
Frustrating, for sure.
Funkhouser, after a somewhat checkered minor-league career, broke through in a big way last year, securing a vital role in the Tigers’ bullpen. He made 57 appearances and threw 68.1 innings, mostly as manager AJ Hinch’s bridge reliever in games the Tigers were close or ahead.
He posted a 7-4 record with a 3.42 ERA. Half of the 26 earned runs he allowed last year came in three outings. With his power sinker-slider combination, he induced a 53% ground ball rate and minimal hard contact. Opponents hit .229 and slugged .340 against him. His 4.6% barrel rate (balls hit off him with an exit velocity of 95 mph or harder) was in the top 8 percentile in baseball.
Pretty darn good.
And now, he’s watching helplessly as teammates Alex Lange and Jason Foley step into that role entering the 2022 season.
“I try to look at the positives,” said Funkhouser, who unfortunately has had to deal with these types of setbacks too many times before. “Like, I missed the first couple of weeks last season, too, and it worked out pretty good.”
Funkhouser didn’t pitch for the Tigers until May 6 last year. But that wasn’t because of an injury. He was one of the first players sent out of camp last spring, Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter told him at the time that he wasn’t in proper pitching shape.
“I know this is a different scenario, but my mindset is the same as it was last year — get healthy and get back soon,” he said. “Just build off the fact that, you know, ‘It’s OK. I missed time last year and I still had a pretty good year.’”
What galls him, though, especially after how last spring went down he wanted to show Hinch and Fetter that he’d learned his lesson. He wanted to come into camp throwing bullets right from the start.
“I told AJ, my one goal this offseason was to be ready for spring,” Funkhouser said. “Just be ready for the year, obviously with them thinking I needed more time last year. I know it’s an injury this time, but it was my one goal. I wasn’t like, ‘Get a new pitch. Learn a new grip.’ Nothing like that. Just be ready to go.
“Feels like I failed my one goal.”
Truthfully, it would only be a failure if he didn’t fully invest himself in the rehab process. But he’s all in. And if all goes the way it should, Funkhouser should have five-plus months to reprise his workhorse role for the Tigers.
“That’s the goal,” he said.
It’s likely, though not set in stone, that Funkhouser will begin the season on the injured list, staying in Lakeland and working in extended spring training.
“I want to be able to progress through the season and not have to think about (the injury),” he said. “I don’t want it to be in the back of my head, like, ‘Is it still there? Is it still bothering me.’ I’m definitely going to iron all that out down here during the rehab process and hopefully, this is just me talking, I won’t miss any more than a couple of weeks.”
Soon the clubhouse is going to clear out, this time for good, with the team heading north to start the season. Funkhouser, along with rehabbing teammates Jake Rogers and Spencer Turnbull, are going to have the place to themselves.
It’s a lonely feeling, one no player wants.
“Just a waiting game,” he said.