Jeremy Hellickson couldn’t run, work out or throw. The Washington Nationals right-hander had a slight sensitivity to light, and his head pounded when he opened a door or lifted his arm as high as his shoulder.
“My shoulder was feeling good, but I still couldn't do anything [else],” Hellickson said. “I couldn't really go outside because the headaches were really bad.”
Six weeks later, after three injections, three bullpen sessions and a simulated game in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Nationals’ former fifth starter feels “really good.” Last week, the 32-year-old thought he would be on track to return by late August or early September, but he hesitated to think in specifics. Manager Dave Martinez tempered expectations — “I don’t like to put timetables on [injuries],” he noted — and said, after Hellickson missed about two months, he considers him in “spring training mode.”
“If he can come back, that’d be great,” said Martinez, who could use the rotation help.
This week, the manager’s frustration with the fifth-starter role peaked. Since Hellickson’s departure, he had experimented with three young right-handers — Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross — but any success he found was fleeting. Right shoulder tendinitis landed Voth on the 10-day IL in mid-July and, in the past week, Fedde and Ross have combined to allow 18 hits and 15 earned runs in 8⅓ innings.
The situation reached a point that Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, the Nationals talked with a team about a “fifth spot-type guy,” but the other team backed out, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post.
Now, the Nationals will need at least 10 more starts from their fifth starter — maybe more, depending on ace Max Scherzer’s health — and each start will become more valuable as opportunities dwindle to make up ground in the National League East. The Atlanta Braves began play Friday with a seven-game lead over Washington and Philadelphia.
“One of those guys has to step up,” Martinez said of Fedde, Voth and Ross. “The fifth-starter job is there. It's in front of them. … Until [one of them earns the job], they're all getting opportunities to do it.”
One name left out of this discussion is the player who started the season as the fifth starter: Hellickson. He might not be the answer — he averaged 4⅓ innings per start and had a 6.23 ERA before hitting the IL — but he would at least give Martinez another option, one who has proved capable. Before he left for West Palm Beach, Hellickson planned to pitch the simulated game and, if it went well, start a rehab assignment.
The key, Hellickson said, was the platelet-rich plasma injection he received in mid-June. He had never tried it before because, after the shot, pitchers are mandated to take a week off from throwing, and he hadn’t wanted to miss a start. This time, after two cortisone shots had little effect, Hellickson went for it.
“A week after the PRP shot, I was feeling great shoulder-wise,” Hellickson said.
He opened doors and lifted his arm. Everything felt how it was supposed to. But just when he wanted to throw again, the headaches he had been waking up with worsened.
Earlier this season, Hellickson felt neck tightness but dismissed it as something pitchers deal with regularly. He sometimes felt it in the bullpen before games, but adrenaline pushed him through the start.
A doctor told him the headaches could be related to the shoulder — there was a lot of inflammation — but it was unlikely. He got a few shots in his neck to help the nerve, but one of them didn’t go well.
“There was so much fluid they put in there, it kind of felt like my head was growing,” Hellickson said. “It was weird.”
After that, Hellickson only rode the bike. He took anti-inflammatories and continued talking with a doctor, who assured him it was nothing serious. Three weeks later, the headaches lessened to the point where Hellickson could resume baseball activities, but they lingered. Last week, Hellickson got an MRI exam on his neck for his own peace of mind. It came back clean.
In his first two bullpen sessions, Hellickson tried to hone the shape of his pitches, feel out the strike zone again and relocate his arm slots, especially on his sinker.
“[Before the IL] I had no idea where [that pitch] was going,” Hellickson said. “My arm slot was different on almost every pitch.”
Overall, though, he’s focused less on the pitches themselves and more on his shoulder feeling good following the outing. In his second bullpen session, he reached 35 pitches, which was “kind of a lot,” and he “felt good.” That’s really all he and the pitching staff cared about, he said.
Now, Hellickson is thinking about what it would mean to come back. He wants to be a starter, but if it doesn’t work out that way, he’s okay with it.
“Honestly, whatever I can do,” he said. “It’s been tough watching us play this well and not contributing. I’ll do whatever I need to do to contribute.”