Braves’ Foltynewicz on road to recovery after serious illness

Mike Foltynewicz (right) took part in a roundtable session at Braves FanFest on Saturday. He was joined by A.J. Pierzynski (left) and Gordon Beckham. Foltynewicz is recovering from September surgery to remove part of a rib after blood clots were found in his arm. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz was miserable sitting around his apartment most of the offseason, losing weight and strength, prohibited from doing anything strenuous while recovering from September surgery for blood clots in his arm.

And when finally cleared to begin throwing on Christmas day, he was frustrated still when instructed only to make the softest of tosses to his dad while at his parents’ home in Texas, and warned that doing anything more could set him back.

Still, as he reflected Monday upon events of the past 4 ½ months, Foltynewicz, 24, did so with a positive outlook and an appreciative view. He felt fortunate to have avoided a catastrophic outcome from the blood clots, which were discovered after his right (pitching) arm swelled grotesquely one night in September.

He underwent surgery to remove part of the first rib on his right side, which had compressed blood vessels in his arm.

“They said it just happens a lot, because you build your shoulder muscles up so much,” Foltynewicz said, “and then when you start throwing obviously it’s not a natural motion, so it just crushes all your arteries and veins and it just stops (blood flow). So that’s why my arm was two times the size of my left arm.

“They say you’re supposed to be able to fit a finger between the ribs, and you couldn’t even fit a piece of paper (between his), so that’s how bad it was clotted. Luckily they found it, because I could have had a stroke on the airplane when we went to the next (trip). It was a life-threatening injury, it really was. And it was kind of scary to go through.”

He increased his throwing program Monday to firm tosses from 120 feet, but he’s behind other Braves pitchers and won’t be ready for full activities at the beginning of spring training. He aims to catch up and be ready when the season begins, but cknowledged it could take longer.

He’s still on blood-thinning medication and can’t ramp things up signicantly until doctors take him off the meds. In the meantime, his stretching and conditioning work has gone well with Braves physical therapist Lloyd van Pamelen.

“I’m on the same training regimen as everybody else now, just the throwing (part) I might be a couple of weeks behind,” Foltynewicz said on the first day of a voluntary Braves pitching camp at Turner Field. “I’ve got to get off (medication) before I can start throwing 100 percent, because stuff can really start getting bothered and getting pulled if I’m on blood thinners. Once we’re off them I’ll throw off the mound and see how I feel, and we’ll go from there.”

While he hopes to be pitching in games by the first or second week of the season, there’s a chance Foltynewicz could miss most or all of April. He’s part of a stable of young Braves pitchers and prospects, and the team will be careful he doesn’t overdo things as he rebuilds strength and fitness.

In his first season in the organization and first as a major league starter, Foltynewicz finished 4-6 with a 5.71 ERA in 18 games (15 starts) and had 77 strikeouts, 29 walks and 17 home runs allowed in 86 2/3 innings.

The 6-foot-4 Texan was a slender but wiry 226 pounds before the illness, and noticeably thinner Monday. His weight dropped to about 200 pounds during the offseason, and now he was back to about 209.

The condition that befell him isn’t so uncommon among athletes with a high degree of muscular development in their upper backs and shoulders, particularly swimmers.

Foltynewicz was rushed to an Atlanta hospital immediately after Braves trainer Jeff Porter saw his arm when the pitcher reported to Turner Field Sept. 18, hours before a Friday night game. He was diagnosed with blood clots and had season-ending surgery Sept. 21 to remove the anterior portion of the first rib.

“It was just half the rib,” said Foltynewicz, who lifted his shirt to reveal a healed incision beneath his right armpit, where Dr. William Mayfield performed the surgery. “It’s the first rib, it’s all the way back up there (behind right shoulder). They just went up through my armpit, got it out, put me on blood thinners and said, ‘You’re good to go.’

“So I mean, I was alright after a couple of days, it’s just going to take some time to get my strength back up. We’ll be alright.”

He was diagnosed with pneumonia in early September and was later told that might have been related to the clots.

“I’d had pneumonia on this (left) side, and that was painful,” he said. “The doctors said that could possibly have been a blood clot, they just didn’t know it (at the time). That could have been something and we just didn’t … it was hard to tell, because they barely found the pneumonia in there in the first place. The body’s a weird thing, all that stuff in there and how they can find it. It’s awesome. But thankfully they found this and I got it taken care of, because it could have been really bad.”

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