Blue Jays’ Tulowitzki hopeful for return, ‘headed in right direction’

Troy Tulowitzki talks about heading in the right direction in his recovery and why he wants to return to the Toronto Blue Jays this season.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — The last time Troy Tulowitzki played ball was July 28, 2017. It was a Friday night contest at Rogers Centre, the 1,286th time he’d taken part in a major-league game. In the third inning, as he was running out a groundball, Tulowitzki stepped on the first baseman’s foot and collapsed in pain. He’d torn ligaments and suffered a compression fracture in his right ankle. His season was over.

To say the nearly 11 months since have been challenging for Tulowitzki wouldn’t do it justice. He’s already aborted one comeback attempt, gone under the knife for surgery on each of his heels, and begun another. Today, it’s no more certain when he’ll be healthy enough to play again as it was on the day he collapsed at first base. All Tulowitzki knows is he can’t wait for the day to come.

“I love this game, man. I’ll do anything for it,” Tulowitzki said, sitting in the Blue Jays dugout at Tropicana Field. “And I miss it — there’s no doubt about that.”

Wearing grey sweatpants, a black t-shirt with four photos of his son, Taz, printed on the front, and a black Vegas Golden Knights hat, Tulowitzki made his way around the Blue Jays clubhouse Tuesday, catching up with the teammates who have played the season’s first 66 games without him. Tulowitzki’s been stationed not far away, in Dunedin, Fla., where he reports to the Blue Jays spring training facility every day to continue his rehabilitation.

“I miss them. It’s crazy. When you’re at the facility, you’re not around these guys, you’re just texting them,” Tulowitzki said. “It’s like family, it really is. I’ve gotten close to some of these guys. It’s special just to see them.”

The plan initially was for Tulowitzki to be right there along with them. After rehabilitating his injuries over the winter, it was expected Tulowitzki would be ready for the beginning of the season. But as spring training progressed, and Tulowitzki didn’t, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Bone spurs in each of his heels that he estimates he’s played through for as long as five seasons were causing him excruciating pain. He wasn’t able to do the things he needed to.

“It just got to be a little bit too much,” he said. “At this point in my career, I wanted to give myself a fair chance to come back and be the player I know I can be. And also to end my career when I want to end it, not because it’s being forced.”

What that meant was bilateral surgery on his heels to remove the bone spurs. It also meant Tulowitzki would miss the first two-to-three months of the 2018 season, at least. It was a tough decision — but one that needed to be made.

“I’ve got to do it the right way,” he said. “I think there were times in my career that I tried to play through things and maybe the product that was out there wasn’t what I approved of. But I just went out there and grinded. I think this time I needed to do it this way and be selfish with it and get myself right.”

The surgery was performed in early April. In the immediate aftermath, Tulowitzki spent an entire week in bed before he was able to do some very light walking, using crutches with casts on each of his feet. The issue wasn’t anything structural, per se, but rather a waiting process for the deep incisions through which the bone spurs were removed to heal.

Without getting into specifics, Tulowitzki described the bone spurs as “bigger than expected” and summed up the time he spent immobilized as simply “painful.” The weeks since have involved a slow, deliberate progression intended to get Tulowitzki back to participating in baseball activities. It has not been easy.

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But Tulowitzki believes things are starting to turn. This week, he’s been standing in against live pitching, facing Blue Jays minor-leaguers participating in extended spring training. He’s been taking groundballs at short, too, and doing some light running in the outfield. He says the pain he was experiencing in his heels during spring training has been replaced by mere soreness, which doesn’t sound like a good thing but is.

“The pain is gone. It’s just if I’m on my feet for a long period of time the soreness comes in. And that’s where I have to be careful because when I do come back and play I need to be on my feet for long periods of time,” Tulowitzki said. “But things are going good. I’m feeling better. I can actually say for the first time in a while that I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.

“I’m in a good spot — I’m in a good spot, man. I feel like this needed to be done. I feel like I’m getting better.”

More strenuous running on the base paths will be the next step in his recovery, although he’s not sure when he’ll be ready to give it a try. That uncertainty is by design. There is no timetable for Tulowitzki’s return; no dates in mind. Rather, he’s constantly tested and reassessed, and the Blue Jays training staff use the feedback they’re receiving to determine whether he’s ready to progress or not.

“It’s all on feel. There’s really no schedule. I come in every day and discuss with them how I’m feeling and give them the feedback, see how sore I am,” Tulowitzki said. “We try to map out a plan on a weekly basis of what we’re going to try to do. But that changes, honestly, every day that I go in there. But I’d say for the last two weeks not much has altered — it’s been going as planned.”

Due to that structure, it’s impossible to get a grasp on when Tulowitzki will be able to resume playing baseball. That will depend entirely on how he feels and what he’s able to do over the coming weeks. Tulowitzki says his goal is merely to return to a major-league field sometime this season. But he’s not prepared to say that’s definitely going to happen.

“I don’t want to sit here and tell you guys I’ll for sure be back. But, at the same time, I like my chances with the way things are going,” he said. “That’s definitely a goal of mine — to come back and help these guys.”

For now, he watches the Blue Jays from afar and bides his time. He’s obviously not happy with the results the team has experienced, but he says he’s encouraged by the effort he’s seeing and the perseverance of the club’s veterans. Whether or not Tulowitzki shares the field with his teammates later this season remains to be seen. But he knows how it’ll play out if he does.

“When I do get back out there, I’ll definitely be myself. You’re not going to see me smile out there. I’m going to be about my business,” Tulowitzki said. “But that’s what I love. And that’s the part I miss. Competing every day. Trying to beat you. trying to find ways to help my team win. And then trying to get these guys to play on a level that maybe they don’t know that they have in them.”

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