Garrett Mock moves past neck surgery and tries to make the Nationals

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; D02

VIERA, FLA. - Think back to April 2010, to the beginning of the Washington Nationals' season - and think hard, because this a tough one, the kind of brainteaser that could win you a bar bet or two. Okay, ready? See if you can name the five members of the Nationals' opening day starting rotation.

There were John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Craig Stammen, Livan Hernandez and . . . yeah, told you this was a tough one. The fifth pitcher started one game all season. He underwent a rare neck surgery. Even though he's 27 and has just four big league wins, some Nationals officials think he has the best arm in the franchise aside from Stephen Strasburg.

It's easy to forget now, but - if you still haven't gotten it - Garrett Mock started the fourth game of the Nationals' season about 11 months ago, against the New York Mets on a windy, dark night at Citi Field. Mock faced 19 batters. Five of them walked. Two hit home runs. Mock took 84 pitches to record 10 outs. He walked off the field and, for the purposes of most Nationals fans, fell off the face of the earth.

While the baseball world forgot about him, Mock recovered from a harrowing injury and regained full strength in his arm. With his health intact, Mock plans to compete for the spot he won a year ago.

"I came here to make the team," Mock said last week. "I made the team last year. I have no sense of entitlement, like I made it last year so I should make it this year. But I came here with every intention to make the team."

The Nationals have four starters virtually in place, a fifth, Tom Gorzelanny, holding inside position on the last spot and a slew of others - Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Yunesky Maya - in line should one of them falter. And then comes Mock. The Nationals, Manager Jim Riggleman said, will let him work as a starter, but they also could experiment with him as a reliever.

For now, after what he endured last year, Mock is content simply to pick up a ball and throw it. "I appreciate just being able to go out and play catch," he said.

Mock's trouble last season began during spring training. In his first two spring training starts, Mock commanded pitches in the strike zone. Then he woke up one morning and felt a crick in his neck. He didn't think too much about it.

As the spring wore on, Mock's efficient, strike-throwing performances stopped. He still felt a strange knot at the base of his neck and received treatment from the trainers, but he didn't worry.

The day after his start in New York, Mock played catch with Stammen, his usual routine. As Mock tossed alongside Nationals pitchers, a wayward ball bounced toward him. He reached quickly and felt something horrible: His arm went numb. Mock grabbed his shoulder and collapsed.

"It looked like something shocked him in the shoulder, like something came up and bit him," Stammen said. "It just went dead."

The next thing Mock remembers is sitting in the dirt on the warning track. Slowly, feeling came back into his arm. He finished playing catch with Stammen, flipping the ball underhanded.

The following day he was checked by a doctor and Mock found out what had happened: a disk had ruptured slightly in his neck during the spring, and while it healed on its own, part of it calcified over a nerve. The searing sensation he felt was the result of a piece of the disk breaking loose and exposing the nerve. He would need surgery. The Nationals placed him on the disabled list.

Between the injury and the surgery, Mock would sometimes get the sensation of a foot falling asleep rushing down his entire right arm. The spoon would drop out of his hand while he ate cereal. He was afraid to pick up his toddler son. "I couldn't feel my arm," Mock said. "It shook me to my core."

After surgery, Mock began his long recovery. Late in fall, he made six minor league starts, struggling to find consistency. "One game, I got shellacked," Mock said. "One game, I'd punch out seven in three innings. It was a very long, grueling process."

And now, finally, it's over. Mock's future with the Nationals is uncertain after last season, a year so easily forgotten. Thing is, he wants to forget it, too.

"Last year is over and done with," Mock said. "You know that old saying, if it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger? That's me."

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