McCann encouraged, progressing toward mid-April return

Catcher Brian McCann, who had shoulder surgery in October, took batting practice with the team Friday.
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Catcher Brian McCann, who had shoulder surgery in October, took batting practice with the team Friday.

Credit: David O'Brien, dobrien@ajc.com

Credit: David O'Brien, dobrien@ajc.com

The Braves have never wavered on a six-month minimum rehab period for Brian McCann, perhaps making it easier to accept that April 16 is the earliest he could play a major league game.

But on a day like Friday, when he took morning batting practice with teammates on the main field for the first time since October shoulder surgery, the itch probably got a little stronger for the six-time All-Star catcher.

“I’ve just got to be smart,” said McCann, who also did two sets of 20 throws at 120 feet. “Today was a great day. Throwing was better than it has been, and hitting — today is the best I’ve felt hitting. I’m taking the necessary steps forward.”

McCann, 29, said it was the third time he took batting practice, and Saturday he expects to hit and throw again, which would make it the first time he’s done both on consecutive days.

The extension in his swing looked and felt good, which wasn’t the case when McCann played through a shoulder injury that got progressively worse after the All-Star break in his career-worst season.

“I thought he looked great,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after watching Friday’s session. “If I didn’t know he had surgery, and I didn’t know he’s doing the rehab thing. … I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He’s right on schedule for April 16, right around there. Hopefully that continues.

“I think the last thing is going to be the throwing, but he looks good.”

McCann had surgery Oct. 16 for a torn labrum in the back of his throwing shoulder. Ligaments were secured to the socket to stabilize the joint. He had been plagued by partial dislocations, causing sharp pain when he extended on some swings or tried to halt a swing.

The five-time Silver Slugger Award winner had career-lows in most categories, including a .230 average, .300 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage, albeit with 20 homers. He began the season with a .286 career average, .358 OBP and .486 slugging percentage.

“The middle of July is when it started getting to the point where I was starting to feel it a lot more,” he said. “It just kept getting worse. You can play through injury, you can play through pain, but it got to the point where it was affecting the way I would attack a baseball. Balls that you’re normally hitting on a line drive, you’re fouling off, and balls that you would square up, you’re rolling over.”

His range of motion is better, and the shoulder joint moves more freely since surgery.

“I have my really good days, and I have days when it’s not as good,” he said. “I’ve just got to stay even-keel and take the good with the bad. … Very encouraged today, the way the ball’s coming off (the bat).”

Asked about throwing, he said: “It’s right where it needs to be. Everything that the training staff has put in front of me, I’ve accomplished. I’m making steps forward. I’m right on schedule.”

Braves doctors have told him he won’t be cleared to play until April 16, the six-month mark. It hasn’t been determined if he’ll be permitted to begin major league games on that date, or need more rehab games.

He could get in minor league or extended-spring training games before April 16, if doctors think he’s progressed enough to play in an environment where he could avoid diving or sliding, not to mention collisions.

“The first day I can play in a game is April 16,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be (at Triple-A) Gwinnett or in Atlanta. If I can get the necessary work in a controlled environment, then I can get my rehab work down down here (in Florida), I can play in games on the minor league side. I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to get all the work in.”

The Braves signed veteran backup Gerald Laird to a two-year contract, and he’ll start most games until McCann returns. They haven’t decided on a backup to Laird while McCann is out.