DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s easy to forget that Brett Cecil tore his left calf muscle clean in half less than five months ago. Lost in the mayhem and pandemonium that was October, 2015 for the Toronto Blue Jays was Cecil’s unfortunate, freak injury which held him out of the ALCS and has required a full winter of rehab to get over.
It happened in game two of the ALDS vs. Texas, when Cecil spotted Mike Napoli wandering too far off the bag at first. Napoli was caught in a run-down that Cecil became a part of as the Rangers first baseman darted back and forth between the bags. As soon as Cecil took his feed at first base from Troy Tulowitzki, he took a stride forward to close ground on Napoli and felt something pop. His calf had torn, but adrenaline took over, and Cecil caught up to Napoli and applied the tag. After that, he could barely walk off the field
“I don’t know how I took the extra steps,” Cecil says. “I cried walking back to my locker.”
What was strange about Cecil’s injury was that the severity of it would have allowed him to pitch in the World Series if the Blue Jays had gotten there. With the muscle torn clean across, the area felt numb to him, as if there was nothing even there. That meant Cecil simply had to train the other muscles in his lower leg to provide the force and stabilization that his calf was no longer offering in order to pitch.
He spent hours with the Blue Jays training staff, working through endless balance and strengthening exercises, and lying on a trainer’s table as his leg was contorted in every direction. He even pitched off a mound a few times during the ALCS, and told the team he’d be ready for the World Series if they made it there.
They didn’t. But all the work Cecil did in order to get himself ready for the possibility of pitching in it only served to jumpstart his rehabilitation.
“It helped so much that we were getting after it so hard there, trying to get me back. I feel like it really alleviated the length of time it’s taken to heal,” Cecil says. “It made the offseason a lot easier.”
That offseason began with Cecil mostly staying off of the leg for weeks as he received daily treatment to help it heal, whether it was massage, acupuncture or simple ice. By mid-November he was able to start sessions with physical therapists in Dunkirk, Maryland, his hometown. He went through three sessions a week for a month, focusing on balance and muscle endurance. By December, Cecil wasn’t bothered by it at all.
“I was walking everywhere, no pain, no limp, nothing,” Cecil says. “I went on vacation and stopped doing the physical therapy stuff and it was fine.”
Walking was fine, but running was still an issue. Shortly after he finished physical therapy, Cecil tested his calf by running for 10 consecutive minutes on a treadmill. He felt good when he finished, but the next morning the pain was agonizing and he spent two straight days walking with a limp. He stopped running entirely at that point and focused on strengthening the area, up until a week before spring training when he tried sprinting.
Interestingly, sprinting went better than running, as he found the calf responded well to short bursts of high exertion rather than long periods of moderate effort. He sprinted eight times for four consecutive days and felt no ill effects, which was when he knew he was ready for the season.
“I’m not really worried about long distance running. I can jog to the mound from the bullpen,” Cecil says. “The main thing is being able to use that sprint action to get to a ball here or a ball there. And that’s been totally fine.”
This spring, the Blue Jays training staff is continuing to treat the area, using dry needles and Graston technique to work down the built-up scar tissue around the site of the tear. That process can be painful, but Cecil feels immediately better afterwards and says the scar tissue has gone down dramatically since he arrived in Dunedin.
When he’s pitching, Cecil feels a hint of tension for a quick moment at the height of his delivery, but at that point in his mechanics Cecil pivots his foot and begins to drive to the plate, which doesn’t bother him at all. Of course, he pitched when it was completely torn as well, so he doesn’t expect his performance on the mound to be affected in the slightest.
For now, Cecil is on his own spring training program separate from the other pitchers, a step taken in order to limit the amount of unnecessary running and fielding work he performs during camp. Cecil’s been playing baseball his entire life; he knows how to field a bunt. The organization doesn’t want to risk him aggravating the injury on a drill he’s performed thousands of times before.
He wasn’t scheduled to pitch in any of the team’s first five Grapefruit League games, completing his mound work in the bullpen instead. “That’s just for the first couple weeks,” Cecil says. “After that, I’ll be free to go.”
That’s good news for the Blue Jays who will look to the 29-year-old to be the team’s go-to left-hander in late and close situations. Cecil’s been one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball over the last three seasons, pitching to a 2.67 ERA in 168.1 innings of high leverage relief. He hasn’t allowed an earned run since June 24 of last year, a stretch of 33.2 innings including playoffs. He’ll try to extend that streak as far as he can into 2016.
“I just want to have a good year, be right in line with my last three,” Cecil says. “I’m not trying to hit any specific number or whatever. I’m just trying to get outs whenever I’m put in.”
Of course, this is an incredibly important year for Cecil, who will become a free agent at the end of it. This winter has been an exceptionally profitable one for pitchers in Cecil’s mold: late-game relievers who don’t close games. While they aren’t awarded saves, these pitchers frequently face a game’s highest leverage situations, as they’re often called upon to get their teammates out of jams, as opposed to closers who generally get to start an inning fresh.
Baseball is beginning to reward their efforts, as several non-closing relievers earned hefty paydays as free agents this offseason, including Darren O’Day (four years, $31 million), Ryan Madson (three years, $22 million), Tony Sipp (three years, $18 million) and Shawn Kelley (three years, $15 million).
“I’m definitely glad that’s happening,” says Cecil, who will make $3.8 million this season. “Some of the toughest outs to get are in the seventh or eighth when you get brought in and there’s runners on base. It’s well deserved for those guys that are getting paid.”