After he was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last September, his next throw was limited to 50 mph on a closely monitored radar gun. Within months, gradually increasing his velocity and his number of throws, Billingsley was delivering pitches at 90 mph.
“You have these certain points where we’re going to test the ligament, testing our arm,” he said. “Each time I passed with flying colors.”
A partially torn UCL is no small injury. It usually leads to Tommy John surgery, which usually leads to a 12- to 18-month recovery period. The Dodgers opted for a more conservative treatment of rest, ice and PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections. So far it’s working.
But can they trust Billingsley to accurately report pain? That seemed to be an issue last July when Billingsley begrudgingly reported minor pain in his elbow, went on the 15-day DL at the insistence of the team, missed one start, then came back and won six in a row. All along, he insisted that he felt the same before and after going on the DL.
“We have to make sure players are talking,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “You can only keep an eye on them so much to be able to see something. If they don’t speak up that’s where you end up getting into trouble. (Because of the World Baseball Classic) we have a little bit of extra time.”
Mattingly said that Billingsley – and Ted Lilly, who is coming back from season-ending shoulder surgery – will begin spring training on regular throwing programs. “But it’ll be on a program that suits them through the medical department. If something’s going on, that’s where we’re going to make sure – we need to make sure these guys speak up and let us know what’s going on.”
Billingsley said he’s throwing all of his pitches – a fastball, cutter, slider, changeup and curveball. He said he threw off a mound Saturday and will do so again tomorrow.
For Billingsley, maybe the biggest difference in spring training this year is that he isn’t guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. But his goal is not to earn a spot in the Dodgers’ bullpen.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Billingsley said.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti often cited Billingsley’s health as one reason why the team is carrying eight starting pitchers to begin spring training, but that no longer appears to be a valid reason.