The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mason Denaburg has undergone two major surgeries since the Nats drafted him. He’s still 21.

The Nationals drafted pitcher Mason Denaburg 27th overall in 2018. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP)

Every so often, from his apartment in West Palm Beach, Fla., Mason Denaburg cues up a minor league game he should be playing in. He tries not to do this every night. Sometimes it is nice to just play cards with his roommates, to watch another sport, to unwind like a 21-year-old who isn’t two major surgeries removed from huge baseball dreams.

But that’s also who Denaburg is. Since the Washington Nationals drafted him in 2018, 27th overall, the right-hander has thrown just 20⅓ innings in the Gulf Coast League, all in 2019. Other than that? Nothing aside from simulated games, his starts inside the team’s spring training complex, a lump of pitches that aren’t officially logged.

He had arthroscopic surgery in his right shoulder in October 2019. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery performed in March. For now, he is the first-round pick who disappeared, trying to recover from back-to-back injuries that have turned the start of his career into a list of questions. Such as, where, exactly, is Mason Denaburg? Or, when will Mason Denaburg pitch again?

And he hears them. Nowhere are they louder than in his head.

“I still feel like a kid. I wake up every day and I’m still one of the youngest guys that goes to the field,” Denaburg said during a mid-May phone interview. “I feel like it’s just me getting all of my stuff out of the way now, and hopefully not having to worry about it again.”

“I’m not trying to get hurt, you know?” he continued, lowering his voice a tad. “It just happens.”

Spencer Kieboom built his life around baseball. Then he quietly walked away.

That leads to the most important questions of all: Why has this happened, and will it keep happening once he returns to the mound? Both are tough to answer. But Denaburg believes he can pinpoint a few reasons for the shoulder and elbow issues, and he explains them by detailing his past three years, step by step.

In June 2018, the Nationals drafted Denaburg out of Merritt Island High in Florida. Biceps tendinitis had sidelined him during his senior year, but the Nationals still offered a $3 million bonus — $500,000 above his slot value — and he signed instead of enrolling at the University of Florida. By signing close to the deadline, he was a bit late to join his draft class in West Palm Beach. Yet he made it through the 2018 season, through workouts that fall, then the offseason without any problems.

Then his shoulder felt sore. Looking back, he sees a teenager who wasn’t used to the demands of a professional throwing program. He pushed through the 2019 season and underwent shoulder surgery after it. Recovery took six months. From there, he threw from home for most of 2020 as coronavirus rules kept many prospects away from their teams. He went to workouts in the fall, feeling close to himself again, and had his forearm tighten during a simulated game.

This is where he imagines one injury building to the other. Maybe his shoulder surgery created bad habits in his delivery, such as a dragging elbow, and that put strain on the ulnar collateral ligament that eventually tore. Of course, he’s not sure. He rested this winter, rehabbed his arm, hoped the forearm pain would pass without surgery. He hoped to avoid a torn UCL and Tommy John.

Instead, he got both.

“If you have the surgery two months later, you’re still going to miss a year, you know what I’m saying?” Denaburg said of why he waited to undergo the procedure. “… So then I ended up just rehabbing it for six weeks and then started my throwing program again in December, and then got close to finishing it in February. And then at the very end of it, I just couldn’t throw the ball effectively at all.”

From 2020: He and his family had dreamed of his major league moment. Amid a pandemic, he reached it alone.

On Thursday, Denaburg and pitcher Jake Irvin, his roommate, went to Aaron Barrett’s apartment for dinner. Irvin brought a rack of lamb, and Barrett put it in a sous vide before finishing it on the grill. It was Denaburg’s first time eating lamb. (He loved it.) They otherwise talked about Tommy John surgery and the insides of their arms.

They are Denaburg’s immediate support group. Irvin, 24 and also recovering from Tommy John, has been a friend and mentor since they were drafted by the Nationals together. Barrett, a 33-year-old reliever for Washington, has undergone Tommy John, had his elbow snap while in the recovery process in 2016 and is now working back from knee surgery he underwent in February. They have swapped stories and advice in West Palm Beach, hanging in the trainer’s room, the weight room or the outfield grass. And Irvin and Barrett have seen a notable change in Denaburg.

“When you come out of high school, you may not know adversity in the same way as college guys,” said Irvin, who pitched three years at Oklahoma, in a recent phone interview. “You have only ever dominated, you’re a first-round pick, you get the big bonus. So when Mason first got hurt, with his shoulder, there was more feeling sorry for himself, more asking, ‘Why me?’ Like maybe he didn’t understand why he had to go through this and others didn’t. But that’s stopped now. He is in a really good head space.”

“No one wants to start their career the way he has,” Barrett explained in a phone interview. “I mean, no one. But he has gone from being antsy, maybe, to understanding that this is a one-day-at-a-time thing. I know it sounds cliche. But with my injuries, I have always tried to go Friday to Friday. Then days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years, and you’re back to where you want to be.

“It’s far from easy. I just always tell Mason, ‘You’ll have a chance to tell this story one day, and it’s going to be a great one.’ ”

Barrett knows. He is being trailed by a camera crew for a documentary on his comeback. They filmed his knee surgery in Washington, his latest speed bump, and will be there when he faces live hitters again in West Palm Beach. His young daughter says she is going to be a movie star.

So how does Denaburg’s story end? It may be more fair to ask how it begins. He is out of his cast and taking a hard look at his mechanics. He can build lower-body strength before he picks up a ball again. And when he does, with the plan of returning next spring, he expects to be better. He has swapped expectation for hope.

“I can’t make everything look exactly the same as I did when I was 17 years old,” Denaburg said, recalling the last time he excelled. “But I can try to make it look pretty dang close.”