JUPITER, Fla. — The moment Sammy Solis’s left elbow ligament gave way in November 2011, he was in the midst of his best game of the Arizona Fall League.
He had struck out nine batters. Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who believed in Solis’s potential to rise quickly to the majors, was in the stands. Members of Solis’s family, which lives in Phoenix, were watching. The pitch after Solis felt the sensation — “Like a pulled muscle almost,” he said — the catcher called for a fastball. Solis fired one 15 mph slower than normal. The catcher thought it was a change-up.
A pinhole tear had formed in his left arm’s ulnar collateral ligament. The hole was miniscule but it stretched enough to make his throwing arm nearly useless.
“It went from the mountaintop to the valley very quickly,” Solis’s father, Bob, said.
More than two years later, Solis, 25, is in his first big league spring training and, though he has never pitched above high-Class A, might break into the Nationals’ bullpen this season. The left-hander has overcome the Tommy John surgery that set his career back nearly two years with resolve and calm.
It wasn’t easy spending long, lonely days of rehab in Florida while his teammates progressed in their careers. But Solis, drawing on the experiences of his family, who founded and run an orphanage in South Africa, knew to put his head down and focus on the positive.
“Look on the bright side of things,” Solis told himself. “Get out here, work my butt off and get in great shape and come back stronger.”
Over the past two years, Solis has done just that. His 6-foot-5 frame holds 250 pounds of mass and muscle developed during his time away from the mound. His sinking fastball is back in the low 90s and knuckle-curveball is improved.
“Maturity-wise, I’ll be 26 this year,” said Solis, who is scheduled to take the mound for the second time this spring on Sunday in a Nationals split-squad game in Kissimmee, Fla. “I think I’m ready in that aspect. And being competitive, I think I’m ready. Obviously I haven’t had too many opportunities to prove it yet. I’ve only thrown a couple innings out here. . . .I’m just looking to get my shot and I think I can do it. The clock is ticking, but this is only my fourth full season. It takes most guys this long or longer to make it. I’m just blessed to be here and fighting for a position.”
The Nationals have been bullish about Solis since they selected him out of the University of San Diego in the second round of the 2010 draft and signed him to a contract that included a $1 million signing bonus. After he finished the 2011 season at Class A Potomac with a 2.72 ERA over 10 starts, they sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where many top prospects play after the minor league season. He has been back twice more since his elbow surgery in March 2012.
Although he has made only 31 minor league starts, the Nationals think Solis’s talent and maturity could help him overcome his lack of experience.
“We feel like this is a stage where he belongs,” Nationals farm director Mark Scialabba said. “He is certainly ready for the challenge, both mentally and physically. This is the right spot for him. We feel strongly about his potential in the future.”
The torn ligament in his arm tested Solis, but his family’s charity work gave him the needed perspective to handle it. A decade ago, while Solis was a freshman in high school, his parents took the family of five children on a trip to South Africa. “We wanted to show them how the other half of the world lived,” said Bob Solis, a former University of Notre Dame pitcher.
The Solis family researched orphanages and spent eight days at one. When they returned to Phoenix, the family made a bold decision.
“My parents saw a need,” Sammy Solis said. “It’s insane how AIDS is tearing the country apart.”
So in August 2005 the Solis family took the money they had saved to pay off their mortgage, $218,000, and spent it on a 70-acre farm about 75 miles from the South African city of East London. In March 2006 the Open Arms Home for Children took in its first orphan. Today it houses 58 children.
Bob Solis has maintained his full-time job as a financial adviser but uses his free time to run the orphanage and fund-raise from afar with his wife, Sallie. They have raised $4 million and spend $500,00 a year to run the orphange. The family has made several trips to South Africa, and Sammy Solis has gone twice to help at the orphanage in the offseason.
The experience has better prepared the pitcher to handle the setbacks in baseball. It is a difference his parents have noticed.
“After a particularly tough loss or even Tommy John, Sammy is able to put some perspective on it that he might have lacked if he wasn’t involved with Open Arms,” his father said. “It doesn’t make it easier. He’s committed to being a baseball player. But in the back of your mind you remember 2-year-old kids who have been abandoned and left on the side of the road.”