Dan Winkler was in the Braves’ clubhouse at SunTrust Park for the first time Monday, whereupon he showed a long, thickened L-shaped scar on the inside of his right elbow. Actually, it’s the melding of two scars, one from Tommy John surgery in 2014 and the other surgery to repair the fractured elbow he sustained when he threw a pitch on April 10, 2016 and felt – yes, and heard – the horrible snapping of a bone in his elbow.
Dr. James Andrews had cut open the Tommy John scar in order to open Winker’s fractured elbow and insert a long metal screw to hold two bones together so he could try to continue his pitching career. Winkler remembers sitting in a hotel room near the Pensacola, Fla., airport the night before that surgery at Andrews’ clinic, getting emotional as he wondered if he’d ever pitch again.
Monday he was reinstated from the Braves’ 60-day disabled list, having completed another long, arduous rehab process that lasted more than 15 months.
Winkler entered Monday night’s game against Seattle with two out and a runner on second base in the sixth inning, and retired the only batter he faced, Robinson Cano, on a ground-out.
“I told him, man, you’ve been on an unbelievable journey, and you come in and do that – you should be proud of yourself,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Because from where he came and the injury he sustained, I don’t know how they do it. Just all the respect in the world to him. He just went right to work, he went right after him.
“But it’s got to feel pretty good to him to take that huge step and know that the work he’s put in and where he’s been, to be back on a major league mound, man I’m happy as I can be for him.”
When Winkler, 27, displayed that ugly scar earlier in the day, he did so with a smile. He could because the operation worked. The rehab worked. He’s back to pitch again in the majors, the Braves putting him in their bullpen Monday after optioning left-hander Rex Brothers to Triple-A.
“I was pretty emotional,” Winkler said of his thoughts upon entering the clubhouse Monday. “I’ve thought a lot about getting back on that mound, and I was just talking to my agent, like last time when I broke my elbow I didn’t know if I’d ever pitch again. And I remember I went back to Dr. Andrews about three months ago and I passed the hotel where I stayed for my second surgery, and I kind of teared up and was a little emotional. Because I remember sitting in that hotel room and not knowing if I’d ever pitch again. Just to be back here where I am, it’s amazing.
“I thought when I was sitting there that I’d never be back here. Now being back and Dr. Andrews telling me (three months ago) that my elbow looks great, I didn’t think this would happen. It’s my little miracle, I like to say.”
He nearly teared up again as he told the story. Understand, Winkler has gone through more rehab sessions in the past three years than most pitchers would go through in two careers. And the second of his major injuries, a medial epicondyle fracture that occurred when he threw a pitch in just his fifth major league game after the long recovery from Tommy John surgery, left Winkler holding his arm in agony beside the mound at Turner Field as Braves officials, teammates and fans gasped in pain for him, as just about everyone knew what he’d gone through to get back.
No one said it publicly, but many wondered if he’d ever make it back to pitching at a high level. He’s got that scar to remind him what he’s been through, not that he needs to be reminded.
“They went a little longer (with the incision on the second surgery) because I think they had some scar tissue they had to dig out,” Winkler said. “That’s been like 15 months (16) ago, but it feels like it was yesterday.”
And here he was Monday, called up to the majors after posting a 5.14 ERA in 14 minor-league appearances this season spread over two rehab assignments, with 14 strikeouts, four walks and 16 hits allowed in 14 innings. He first went out on rehab in June, made nine appearances and was shut down for three weeks due to shoulder soreness, not uncommon for a pitcher coming back from an elbow injury and overcompensating or favoring the surgically repaired joint.
“Just knowing that it’s not going to hurt when I throw a baseball,” Winkler said of the biggest challenge he faced coming back. “That’s actually been really good. I never really had any pain in my elbow. Once I got over the fear that it’s not going to hurt, that I’m not going to break my elbow again, it was just about getting back in and competing again, doing baseball things.
“I think my first rehab assignment it was more about health. They gave me some time with my shoulder kind of barking a little bit. Second time around it was more about competing again and just doing things the right way and getting outs.”
Snitker said Monday afternoon that he’d heard Winkler was throwing at a little more conventional arm angle now than his previous sidearm delivery.
“We changed some things mechanically, especially when I was with (Gwinnett pitching coach) Reid (Cornelius),” Winkler said. “My second (rehab stint) we had a month to work on some things mechanically. Those changes were great. I started throwing a couple of miles an hour harder. I don’t know if I’m over-the-top more or anything, but I do know that things are a little cleaner and coming out a lot better.”
He laughed and added, “So maybe everybody needs a screw in the elbow.”
Indeed, once he returned from that three-week break, Winkler got vastly improved results, allowing five hits, no walks and no earned runs with five strikeouts in five Triple-A appearances before the Braves decided he was ready to pitch in the major leagues.
“Last year the kid made the club out of spring training and was really good, did well here until the (elbow fracture),” Snitker said,. “He feels great, his velocities are good and all. It’ll be good to see him…. That’s a severe injury. A long road back. When you know what they have to go through to get back, to withstand all that, put the work in like he has -- It’s nice to see him get back.”
The Braves got Winkler from the Colorado Rockies in the December 2014 Rule 5 draft, when he was in the middle of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He made it back to pitch in two major league games at the end of the 2015 season, then pitched in the Arizona Fall League that year before having a dominant 2016 spring training to earn a spot on the opening-day roster.
He had four strikeouts and one walk in 2-1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances before fracturing his elbow.
Because of the lengthy time he’s spent on the disabled list, Winkler still hasn’t fulfilled active days on a major league roster that a Rule 5 pick has to complete or else be offered back to his original team for $25,000. He won’t fulfill those days if he stays on the roster the rest of the season, but he’ll be close, and the Braves will have a good idea whether or not he figures in the plans for 2018.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.