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For Cade Cavalli, headed for Tommy John surgery, ‘life changed’ on a single pitch

Cade Cavalli was injured in spring training in Florida. (Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)
5 min

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Until it happened Tuesday, until Cade Cavalli felt a tug in his elbow and a “zing” go down his arm, he had never thought much about Tommy John surgery. Elite athletes, especially young ones, often feel at least a measure of invincibility. Some ram into each other at full speed. Some rise to dunk and let gravity take hold.

And others, Cavalli included, throw a baseball at maximum effort. Then they do it again. Then again and again and again, inviting the sort of consequence that now faces Cavalli.

Next week, the Nationals’ top pitching prospect will fly to Dallas and undergo reconstructive surgery to repair a fully torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. After that, Cavalli will dive headfirst into a year-long rehab, leaving him mostly isolated from the team with whom he was supposed to leave spring training. The Washington Nationals have big plans for Cavalli. They still do, even if the short-term goals have changed. When Cavalli heard the diagnosis Wednesday, he let himself cry. When he left Manager Dave Martinez’s office, he held a gray T-shirt, something he will keep with him in the long months ahead.

The shirt, given to him by Martinez, has “Always …” written across the chest. Around the word, members of the Nationals’ pitching staff wrote reminders in black Sharpie.

Always … be persistent.

Always … stay positive.

Always … grow.

Always … keep working.

“It hurts really bad because I want to be out there competing with them more than anything,” Cavalli, 24, said Thursday. “That’s what’s killing me. But at the same time, I put my eye black on, and it’s time to go to war with this. I’m ready for the fight back. I plan on dominating every aspect that I can.”

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“A lot of guys, Cade specifically, think they are invincible,” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, who delivered the news to Cavalli with Martinez. “They can win any game, do anything. . . . It’s scary to them. It’s only routine surgery if it’s someone else’s surgery, you know what I’m saying? And when it’s you, it’s your career that’s on the line. It’s your rehab. Life changed for Cade on that pitch.”

The pitch, a change-up thrown against the New York Mets on Tuesday, shifted a lot for Washington. Cavalli, a first-round-pick in 2020, was considered a big part of the Nationals’ future and present. Martinez had penciled him as the fifth starter. For a team that’s expected to lose a lot of games again, Cavalli, MacKenzie Gore, 24, and Josiah Gray were a reason to tune in for at least three out of every five nights. Cavalli had been pumping high-90s fastball with a biting curve. After debuting last August and after he was shut down after one start because of shoulder inflammation, he seemed ready for a leap.

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Without him, Chad Kuhl, a 30-year-old righty, will get a hard look for the spot. Cory Abbott, Joan Adon and Jake Irvin are the depth starters in the mix. But the future, as it stands, is much more important than the April or May rotation. And Cavalli’s place in the ongoing rebuild only heightens the stakes of his rehab.

“I just couldn’t believe it was happening in the moment,” Cavalli said. “Because when you give everything you have into taking care of your body, it’s just something you don’t plan on. You never even think about it happening. And when it does …”

Cavalli paused for a beat. There isn’t really a natural end to that sentence. The surgery doesn’t tend to threaten careers like it once did. It actually puts Cavalli on the path of many big-name starters, among them Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, starters who underwent the same procedure as young pitchers for Washington.

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But at the moment, that’s no consolation for Cavalli, who counted durability as perhaps his best tool. In his first full professional season, he posted 123⅓ innings, notably more than he had in three years at Oklahoma (the third of which was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic). In 2022, he threw 101⅓ innings — the last 4⅓ coming in his debut — before he slowed down. Now, though, he won’t throw another inning until at least 2024.

Rizzo tossed out “12 months down the road” for Cavalli’s next start, then deflected a follow-up question about an ideal timeline. Martinez mentioned June or July 2024 for a potential return. The truth is no one knows how Cavalli’s arm will react to surgery and the climb back. Uncertainty can be one of the most challenging parts.

“Everybody was emotional,” Martinez said. “It’s a tough blow. We understand what he’s going through because he went through a little blip last year of an injury and he worked really hard to get back. And this spring, he was doing really, really well. And then all of a sudden …

“It was unfortunate … but he got hurt.”