Shawn Kelley has known bone chips have been floating around his right elbow for a while. He pitched through it, though, because he could. That is, until he couldn’t.
The discomfort progressively worsened from April until Sept. 22, when he left the mound in Queens unable to go on. He spoke Sunday, a day after being placed on the 60-day disabled list, which officially meant his disappointing 2017 season was over. He explained the next step remains unclear. Everything is on the table to fix his elbow, including surgery.
“Now it’s just deciding what we’re going to do about it,” Kelley said. “We’re still waiting to consult with people and try to get the best plan of attack.”
Kelley’s injury history adds uncertainty to an already precarious situation. Kelley, 33, is one of the few major leaguers who has gone undergone two Tommy John surgeries — and one of a much smaller pool of players to have enjoyed any sustained success after the second operation. There might even be something else wrong with the elbow — scar tissue from his two Tommy John surgeries hasn’t allowed the clearest exam images. His elbow is fragile. He said this isn’t a Tommy John matter, but a surgery could be complicated.
“We have to figure out how we’re going to go from there to get me ready,” Kelley said, “so that I don’t miss anytime starting in February.”
If there’s any silver lining to the gloom, it’s that Kelley knows he wasn’t 100 percent for the worst season of his career. The right-hander walked off the field in New York with a 7.27 ERA in 33 relief appearances. He allowed 12 home runs in 26 innings. He accumulated a 1.53 WHIP. It was a frustrating debacle that included two disabled list stints. One was for a back strain. The other was for a neck strain. Looking back, he thinks both were the result of overcompensating for the elbow trouble that never went away.
“I think the biggest thing with me was limiting some of my range of motion,” Kelley said. “After having a couple of surgeries, I don’t have perfect range of motion. I’ve just made that work. But this year, it just started to get less and less. Pretty badly restricted range of motion, which obviously was affecting the life on my pitches, my slider, etc. You try to manage it and pitch through it.
Kelley said the floating bodies in his elbow often left his right hand tingling or numb. Sometimes he couldn’t feel the baseball in his hand. He also lost feeling in his fingers in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, but insisted his problem this season was not related because he felt fine in spring training and April, when he and the Nationals envisioned him replicating his 2016 success. Last season, he posted 2.64 ERA with a fastball in the mid-90s and a wicked slider. As a result, he entered the season as a closer candidate and was given the job in April. That Kelley, however, was absent in 2017.
Kelley’s focus is now on getting healthy for 2018, which is slated to be the final year of a three-year, $15 million contract. The steps he will take to get there, he doesn’t yet know.
“Part of baseball and sports is injuries and managing it and dealing with it,” Kelley said. “I really thought I could do that. But more recently, I would say it definitely would hinder my performance. Definitely the last game. But the numbers and the stats, they are what they are. For me, it’s just about trying to get all this figured out and get back to feeling like I did earlier in the season.”