Braves’ Kirby Yates returns to mound after 724 days, major surgery

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

BOSTON – On a spring day in 2021, Kirby Yates found it difficult to leave the house. He knew what awaited once he boarded a plane to Texas for an MRI: The news that he, at age 34, would need another Tommy John surgery.

“It was incredibly tough for me to leave the house,” Yates said. “I was crying in the middle of the kitchen for no reason, didn’t know why.”

He didn’t know what the outcome would be after surgery. Could he still be an elite reliever? Would his baseball career be over?

That’s why the emotions hit him all throughout Wednesday as he traveled to Boston, joined the Braves and eventually pitched in his first big-league game since Aug. 14, 2020, almost two full years. It was his first MLB appearance in 724 days.

“I never knew if this was a reality,” Yates said of pitching in another major-league game after the second Tommy John surgery of his career.

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But it is indeed real. In Wednesday’s win over the Red Sox, Yates entered in a one-run game in the seventh inning and retired star shortstop Xander Bogaerts to end the inning.

“It’s like making a debut again, but I had probably way more emotion in this than I’ve ever had in a baseball game,” Yates said. “To be honest with you, I’m glad it’s over.”

The journey, Yates said, has not only involved him. Others – like his family and the people back home in Kauai, Hawaii – have been a part of it. They all helped him throughout his journey back to the mound.

On the long road, Yates took things one day at a time. Here he was around 16 and a half months after surgery, standing in a big-league clubhouse after pitching in a major-league game again.

“It’s indescribable,” he said of their impact. “That’s why family is so important. Without them, without believing in you, it makes it a little bit harder just because you feel like you’re on an island, you feel like you’re by yourself. But I never felt that way.”

ExploreBraves’ top prospect Vaughn Grissom homers, impresses in first major-league game

The Braves on Wednesday returned Yates from his rehab assignment. The Braves also called up top prospect Vaughn Grissom because Orlando Arcia went to the 10-day injured list with a strained left hamstring. In addition to placing Arcia on the injured list, the Braves transferred outfielder Adam Duvall to the 60-day injured list and optioned right-hander Huascar Ynoa to Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves also reinstated Mike Ford from the 10-day injured list, designated him for assignment and released him.

Yates gives the Braves another closer in their bullpen to go with Kenley Jansen and Raisel Iglesias. Yates has 57 career saves, 41 of which came in an All-Star season in San Diego in 2019. The right-hander has a 3.54 ERA over a career that began with Tampa Bay in 2014.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Yates was one of baseball’s top relievers before undergoing surgery in March 2021. He worked hard to return, passing every test and checking every box.

“It takes a lot to do that,” manager Brian Snitker said of Yates working to return. “You see what those guys go through. Just, God, the groundhog days, I’m sure, to get back here. And the hard work that it takes, and the dedication.”

Added Braves starter Kyle Wright: “You can only imagine the emotions, right? Going that long without playing – pitching at a high level and then going that long. So it was really cool to see his determination, his grit to fight his way back here.”

The Braves’ bullpen is talented and deep. They boast multiple guys who can pitch in the late innings.

Atlanta knows as well as anyone how much a bullpen can help a team in the postseason.

“What I’ve kind of learned (is) it’s hard to win 162 games off of bullpen arms – you have to have starting pitching,” A.J. Minter said. “But when you get into the postseason, all of that kind of goes out the window. I’m biased obviously, but I feel like bullpen wins World Series and wins postseason games. Obviously it showed last year, and not to say we didn’t have the starting pitching because we did, but if you can have those shutdown innings in a game, that’s when it counts.”

Over his rehab assignment, Yates allowed one earned run over 8 1/3 innings. But he wasn’t solely focused on the results.

First, he wanted to prove he was healthy. “I didn’t want to come up and feel like they needed to protect me, because I don’t think that’s fair to other people,” Yates said. Once he was sure he was fully healthy, he focused on being good at pitching. He still feels like he has room for improvement.

Yates said he feels rusty. But he’s excited to continue working and “get back to who I think I can still be as a big leaguer.” Wednesday was a great first step as Yates got all the emotion out and can now focus on pitching.

Years ago, Yates blew out his elbow early in his freshman season at Yavapai College in Arizona. He eventually signed with the Rays as an undrafted free agent after his senior year. His journey began long before his second Tommy John surgery.

When Yates returned to the clubhouse after the game, his phone was full of text messages. They’re a reminder of his supporters throughout a difficult rehab process.

But Yates is finally back.

“With the way my career has gone and where I was and what I became, do I have more to prove? Maybe not,” Yates said. “But do I have stuff to prove to myself? Yes, because I still feel like I’m really, really capable of being an elite reliever again. If I didn’t feel that way, I probably wouldn’t be here, and I don’t know if I ever would’ve had the surgery again. But I still think I have a lot to give to this game.”

The latest on Arcia

During an interview conducted in front of his locker, Arcia said through interpreter Franco García that the Braves told him he may be able to return in three to four weeks.

Asked about Arcia, Snitker said this of Arcia’s hamstring strain: “It’s enough that he’s going to be a while. Everybody’s different. There’s no timeline. It’s just going to take some time to get back to where he can accelerate and do all those things. I hate it for him.”

Arcia said he first felt the pain when he was halfway to second base after hitting a double on Tuesday.

“It’s just things that happen,” Arcia said. “I’m not going to dwell on it. The past is the past, and now it’s jut time to move forward and keep working to get better.”