DETROIT — The plan back in March was for Ryan Borucki to begin his 2019 season on a Sunday afternoon against the Detroit Tigers. But then something grabbed in his elbow after he threw a slider. And when he tried to pitch through it, his arm wouldn’t let him. So as the Toronto Blue Jays season began, Borucki watched Trent Thornton make the start instead.
Flash forward nearly four months to Friday, when Borucki rejoined the Blue Jays in Detroit, where they are again playing the Tigers. Like last time, Borucki will watch his teammates play out the series. But the reward at the end of the weekend will be worth it, as Borucki is scheduled to finally make his 2019 debut when the Blue Jays return to Toronto on Monday to open a series with Cleveland.
"I’m just going to be treating it like any other start," Borucki said. "But I’m going to be anxious. I’m going to be anxious to get back to Toronto and pitch again."
It’s certainly been a long wait. When Borucki first experienced left elbow discomfort during an outing late in spring training, the Blue Jays said they expected him to miss only one start on the injured list. A week later, the timeline was adjusted to two starts. Two weeks after that, as the discomfort ceased to subside, Borucki received a cortisone shot and was shut down completely.
He ended up missing three months, finally returning to game action in late June, when he began a rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League. He made two more rehab stops in Dunedin and Buffalo, which brings us to now, when he’ll finally begin his sophomore MLB season.
The problem, it turns out, was a bone spur that was causing inflammation in his elbow. The doctors that were examining Borucki at first had suspected that may be the cause, but it wasn’t until his failed attempt to pitch through it that the issue became clear. The cortisone shot and a long rest period helped relieve the inflammation, and now Borucki says he’s feeling healthy and ready to finally get his season underway.
"We agreed that it’ll just be a slow process back and just not trying to rush anything," he said. "Once they gave me that timeline, it kind of made everything a lot better. I kind of was enjoying the process instead of rushing being worried. Because when I wanted to come back early, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get back. And my arm just wasn’t responding.
"And then once they slowed me down and just told me, ‘Okay, it’s going to be this time,’ then I could actually enjoy the rehab process, get better, try to get better every day, and have my arm feel better every day. It was good once we slowed everything down."
That deliberate approach let Borucki settle into a familiar routine. He underwent a pair of surgeries during his minor-league career, including Tommy John in 2013. That prepared him for the up’s and down’s he experienced during his rehab this season.
"Just knowing the bumps that you’re going to go through. You’re not always going to have a good day," he said. "Having two surgeries before, I knew not to freak out about one little thing. There’s going to be bad days. But with all the bad days, there’s a lot of good days. So, having that experience, it made it probably a lot easier for me than if I was doing it for the first time."
And it’s why Borucki knew it would take him some time to regain the feel for his slider, which was the last pitch he worked on in his recovery process. It was the pulling motion he makes when he throws the pitch that originally aggravated his elbow back in spring training.
That 80 m.p.h. slider is an incredibly important pitch for Borucki, giving him a third offering — particularly against left-handed hitters — to play off his 92-93 m.p.h. fastball and 83-84 m.p.h. swing-and-miss change-up. When it came time to throw it for the first time last month, Borucki wasn’t quite sure how it would feel.
"Mentally, it was probably the scariest part for me," he said. "But once I just started trusting my arm and trusting that it’s healed, everything felt good. That’s when it started to come back."
Borucki was one the few positives for the 2018 Blue Jays, pitching to a 3.87 ERA over 17 starts after making his MLB debut mid-season. He pitched well against a number of potent lineups, including the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox. One of his finest outings came in early August when he spun an eight-inning shutout against the Seattle Mariners. A month later, in Baltimore, he threw eight shutout innings again.
Anything close to that kind of effectiveness will be a boon for a Blue Jays staff that currently sits fourth-last across MLB with a 5.50 rotation ERA. Toronto has gotten the third-fewest innings in baseball from its starters (458.1), which is partly due to the club ‘s frequent use of bullpen days, but mostly thanks to a lack of reliable options.
Of the seven pitchers to make five or more starts for the Blue Jays this season, only Marcus Stroman (who will almost certainly be traded by August) and Matt Shoemaker (who is out for the season with a torn ACL) boast ERAs below 5.25. Even if Borucki added a full run to his 2018 ERA, he’d still be the club’s third-best starter this season.
"Great to see Borucki back. What a great kid. And he’s a good pitcher," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. "When I see him, when I just saw him today, it feels like he’s part of our future. It’s good to see him back and healthy."
Borucki would have been on regular rest Sunday, but the Blue Jays opted to give him an extra day’s rest. That means Jacob Waguespack will start for the Blue Jays Sunday after Thornton takes the mound Saturday.
Of course, Borucki can stomach waiting another day after missing more than half the season. The bone spur’s still there, and he may need to have the issue corrected during the off-season. But, for now, he’s just happy to be back participating in games rather than watching them.
"It was fun being able to watch the guys play, and a lot of guys that got their opportunities and were taking advantage of it. That was fun to watch. But, I mean, there’s not too much fun. You’ve got to try to make the best of it — the best you can. Trying to stay busy, not go too crazy down in Florida," Borucki said. "You kind of feel away from it when you’re just watching on TV. I was so excited to get back into this clubhouse and be actually a part of this team again."