After off-season changes, Merryweather hoping to make impact for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays’ Julian Merryweather pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the second inning of a spring training baseball game at TD Ballpark, Sunday, March 20, 2022, in Dunedin, Fla. (Steve Nesius/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Julian Merryweather couldn’t even tell you how many setbacks he experienced while rehabbing a strained left oblique last season. Two, maybe three?

“At least. Multiple setbacks, doctor visits. I don't know how many MRIs. I went through all kinds of stuff,” the Toronto Blue Jays reliever says. “Same old story, right? it's been the biggest thing this off-season. I'm not just going to keep doing the same thing. If I'm getting the same results, I need to do something different to change those results. Because I'm sick of being hurt. I'm sick of being injured. I definitely took that by the by the reins this off-season and made some significant, strategic changes.”

Stop. Just stop. Don’t think what you’re thinking. No athlete wants to be injured. No ballplayer dreams of dedicating their entire life — sacrificing summers, sleep, social lives — to reaching the sport’s highest level only for their body to betray them. No pitcher wants to be the guy at spring training talking about how they’ve revamped everything; how they’ve figured out what prevented them from realizing their potential in the past; how this time’s going to be different.

And certainly not one with ability like Merryweather, who throws 99, flings hard sliders away from righties, fades changeups 20 mph slower than his heater down to lefties, and might just buckle your knees dropping in an 80-mph first-pitch curveball for a strike. A lot of pitchers would love to do one of those things, let alone all of them — which Merryweather did over four brilliant, tantalizing, agonizingly limited outings last April before he disappeared back into the injury wilderness.

His oblique just gave out. And every time he tried to ramp things back up, it gave out again. After striking out five of the six batters he faced while earning back-to-back, season-opening saves, contributing a gutsy, six-out, 31-pitch, extra-inning effort to preserve a tie game, and helping the Blue Jays escape a two-on, two-out jam while protecting a three-run, eighth-inning lead in his fourth early-April appearance, Merryweather wasn’t seen on an MLB mound again until September. And, boy, he didn’t look like himself.

His velocity was down. His spin rates, too. He was walking guys, giving up hard contact. His mechanics were all out of whack. It’s so clear when he watches back the video today. Physically, Merryweather was past the oblique issue. Mentally, he wasn’t over it yet. No matter what he was telling himself at the time.

“I was biting, man. I was just chomping at the bit to get back out there. I just wanted to compete. No matter what, you want to compete,” he says. “But I dealt with so many setbacks last year, I think I was compensating and not realizing it. My brain was trying to protect itself — even though everything was physically fine. I just remember feeling not mechanically correct. And I couldn't put a finger on it. It just wasn't the same mechanics.”

It happens. After re-aggravating his injury multiple times when resuming his throwing earlier in the season, Merryweather was battling uncertainty. Was it going to happen again? Was there another trap door just around the corner? He started holding back in his delivery, dialing down the aggression that’s part-and-parcel to his high-velocity approach.

“I was spinning off, not really finishing my pitches out front,” he says. “It was just something I got in the habit of — babying it and trying to protect it. It’s a natural reaction after dealing with so many setbacks. And I just kept throwing through it.”

What he needed was a mental break. Wouldn’t you? After another miserable season spent rehabbing another miserable injury. The rug pulled out just as everything was finally, at long last, coming together -- after he’d lost a year to Tommy John surgery at 26, lost most of another due to setbacks at 27, thrown his first 13 MLB innings at 28 before elbow tendinitis did him in. Suddenly, at 29, he was looking like the late-inning beast his stuff should let him be until … it happened again.

But what’s he supposed to do, stop trying? Give up? It’s not an option. Not after eight years at this professionally, and all the ones that came before. Not here, at 30, in Blue Jays camp with an opportunity to play a high-leverage bullpen role for a World Series contender. Not after he proved the concept last April, dominating the heart of the New York Yankees order twice in the Bronx.

“That was so big for the mental side. It was such a source of confidence. I know I have the ability,” he says. “It’s just about physically preparing myself to go out there regularly. It's about putting all that together now. And, obviously, staying healthy.”

So that was the focus this off-season, as Merryweather sought to make those “significant, strategic” changes he’s talking about. After taking time to finally get his oblique issue squared away, Merryweather experimented with a new training program that had him alternating high intensity weeks with lower ones, pushing his throwing and lifting beyond where it would even be in-season for five days before dramatically reducing his volume and taking the next five to deload.

The idea was to simulate in December and January what Merryweather’s routine could be like come June and July, when he might be asked to make four appearances out of the Blue Jays bullpen over a five- or six-day span, before being held back for a few days to recover.

A high-intensity week would include a moderate, 15-pitch bullpen on Monday followed by a hard, 30-pitch live batting practice session on Tuesday. Then he’d take Wednesday off before throwing another moderate bullpen on Thursday and a further 30-pitch live batting practice on Friday.

That’s a typical workload for an MLB reliever during a busy stretch of the season, maybe even more strenuous. But it’s an experience Merryweather hasn’t had the chance to condition his body to due to all the time he’s missed. That was the goal of the exercise — to make up for lost time and put Merryweather’s body in position to not lose more of it in the future.

And he went all out. Merryweather treated those off-seasons bullpens as if he was entering an in-season game, working through a revamped preparation routine he hopes to carry into the season.

In the past, Merryweather prioritized stretching and mobility when getting ready to pitch in the bullpen. Now, the converted starter’s focus is on elevating his heart rate and getting his muscle tissue firing before he even steps on a bullpen mound to warm up.

“I just want to make sure everything is hot and fired up. I’m not going out there cold under any circumstance,” he says. “I want my blood flowing, I want my heart pumping, I want to have a sweat going no matter what. That’s all stuff that’s going to help prevent injury and also improve performance.”

It was a hard winter’s work, one that brought Merryweather into Blue Jays camp feeling as prepared as he ever has. Of course, if he felt any kind of pain or distress beyond the inherent discomfort of repeatedly throwing a rock 100 mph several days a week, Merryweather would’ve immediately shut things down. But it all felt blissfully normal. Which provided massive mental benefit for an athlete who’s become accustomed to things going awry.

“Now, it feels like we can just roll so nicely into this year,” he says. “For myself, as a pitching staff, as a team — we’re just going to hit the ground running.”

Will it work? Is this finally the year? We’ll see. Like Merryweather says, when you get the same result over and over again, you have to try something different. It’s all he can do. He’s only put his entire life into this.

“The body’s feeling good. I had a great off-season, really good workouts. I’m coming into the season knowing that I’m prepared — that I’ve already tested my body in the off-season and really pushed myself, probably even more than I would in-season,” he says. “I’m coming in with a fresh oblique. I’m feeling great mentally, I’m confident, I’m aggressive. I want this to be the year, man. It’d mean a lot for me. All the work I’ve put in to be able to be here. I’m just hoping to prove myself.”

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