An important piece of the Nationals’ pitching future returned to a minor league mound two weeks ago and continues his return from Tommy John surgery. Left-handed starter Sammy Solis, 15 months removed from elbow ligament replacement surgery, made his third start on Saturday for Class A Potomac. The velocity is back, he feels stronger than before and the Nationals are, understandably, excited. Solis, rated the eighth-best prospect in the Nationals system by Baseball America, is giddy, too.
“A little more adrenaline,” he said. “It’s not Florida. It’s not noon with no fans out there. It’s just more exciting. I’m actually pitching for something, instead of getting my innings up.”
After building up his arm strength in extended spring training in Viera, Solis reported to Potomac for his first start on May 21, a two-inning outing. On Saturday, he made his third start, allowing two runs on six hits over five innings. It’s almost useless to evaluate performance strictly on numbers after three starts, especially for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, but Solis has a 2.45 ERA in over 11 innings spanning three starts. His command hasn’t completely returned yet — four walks issued — but that’s expected for pitchers with new elbow ligaments.
“The feel has been the biggest thing,” he said. “Change-up and curveball, especially. In the fifth inning [on Saturday] it came around and started throwing it for strikes. It really is a weapon when you can do that. When you can’t, it’s a lot harder to pitch. In the fifth inning I felt a lot more comfortable than I did in the first.”
Solis said his elbow is pain-free, unlike in late 2011 and 2012. He first threw a baseball four months after his March 2012 procedure. He has grown accustomed to the scar on his left elbow, which he calls “the zipper.” (It’s beautiful,” he said, laughing. “I love it.”) His left elbow gets stiff and tired quicker than before, an expected side effect as he builds up his innings. But, overall, he is pleased with his velocity.
The left-hander flashed his smooth delivery on Saturday. His 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame cuts an imposing presence on the mound. His fastball sat between 92 and 94 miles per hour, a tick less than the 93 to 96 mph range before his surgery. “I’ll take  to  all day,” he said. His strikeout pitch, his curveball, sat between 78 and 81 mph.
“That much time off, especially in Florida, I didn’t have anything to do but work out every day,” Solis said. “A lot of people attribute an increase in velocity with a new ligament but I think it’s more getting in shape. I was there for eight months and literally just working out every day. I put on a lot more muscle, I got bigger and I feel stronger than I ever have.”
The Nationals drafted Solis, 24, in the second round in 2010 out the University of San Diego and handed him a $1 million signing bonus, well above the recommended slot money for the pick. Even before his surgery, the Nationals had high hopes for Solis. After posting a 2.72 ERA in 10 starts with a 4.82 strikeout to walk ratio at Potomac in 2011, Solis was likely headed to Class AA Harrisburg in 2012 and perhaps competing for a spot in the Nationals’ rotation this season.
Now, following his year-and-a-half delay, the Nationals still have high expectations for Solis. He will, according to an organizational policy to limit pitchers returning from major arm surgery, be capped at an innings limit this season, a specific number he doesn’t know yet. “I let the front office take care of that,” he said.
Solis was also sad to hear last week of the death of renowned orthopedic surgeon Lewis Yocum, who performed Tommy John surgery on countless baseball players, including Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Solis.
“He does so many, so I didn’t expect any personal experience with him,” Solis said. “But he called me a few times to check in. After I got my surgery, he didn’t leave the recovery room until I woke up. It was really special.”