Time Could Be On A.J. Puk’s Side After Lengthy Rehab

Image credit: (Photo by Carson Field/Cronkite News)

MESA, Ariz. — A.J. Puk jogged from the Athletics bullpen in left-field foul territory and approached the infield.

As the 24-year-old pitcher neared the mound at Oakland Coliseum, the crowd’s applause got louder and louder. With more than 20,000 patrons on their feet, the A’s prospect kept a calm demeanor during the biggest milestone of his career: his MLB debut.

Puk retired one of the three New York Yankees he faced, allowing a hit, a walk and no earned runs. Though his first major-league appearance didn’t last long, Puk couldn’t help but be proud of it.

“You see the dream you worked for your whole life finally come true,” Puk said. “Especially after an injury that may have possibly delayed the debut or just the path you were on, it was fun.”

This late-August relief outing came just 16 months after the biggest setback of his career—Tommy John surgery. It was late March 2018 when doctors told Puk that he had a torn UCL, a devastating injury for pitchers.

After undergoing surgery, Puk knew the recovery would last longer than a year. This made it necessary for him to follow an intense strength-training program during his rehabilitation to keep his dominance on the mound.

“It was pretty easy to stay in shape with that,” Puk said. “They kind of have a strict protocol of what exercises you need to do to get back. Going there every day and trying to make it the best every day.”

Now, with the start of the baseball season delayed, could that benefit Puk? He seemed set for the bullpen, but the added recovery time could mean a shot at the starting rotation.

On average, the Tommy John recovery time for pitchers is between 12 and 15 months. Because of this, rehabbing pitchers can get antsy in the months of conditioning without throwing a baseball.

That’s how Puk felt at first.

“At the beginning it was (mentally taxing),” Puk said. “A week out from surgery I was like, ‘I can’t wait to throw again.’ It’s a long process.”

For Puk, this speed bump came at the worst possible time. He was rising quickly within the Oakland organization and entered 2018 as the MLB’s No. 41 prospect.

It would have been easy for Puk to lose hope and get complacent during the rehab. But instead, he found consolation in the small steps toward full recovery.

“You get those little things to look forward to, like my first time throwing the ball, throwing a changeup,” Puk said. “One week I’m throwing from 90 feet, the next I’m throwing from 120. Just those little things you look forward to to get you through rehab.”

In June 2019, Puk reached another important stepping stone: his return to the minor leagues. With the Single-A Stockton Ports, Puk played three games before being promoted to Double-A Midland.

He earned a Triple-A call-up in July, making nine appearances for the Las Vegas Aviators before his promotion to the majors.

Puk credits his minor-league rehab trainers for expediting the process once he returned to game action.

“(They) did everything they could to help me get back,” Puk said. “Those guys helped with all the strength coaches, too.”

After Puk’s debut against the Yankees on Aug. 21, he played nine more games for the A’s before the end of the regular season. In Puk’s first few games, he struggled to find his footing on the mound, allowing two earned runs in 4.1 innings of work.

But after that, his performance improved. Puk finished the season 2-0, 3.18.

Jesus Luzardo, another young Oakland arm who made his debut in late 2019, attributes Puk’s work ethic to his quick success in the MLB.

“Ever since he debuted, he’s just gotten more intense,” Luzardo said. “He kind of just takes every day more serious. Anywhere from playing catch to taking care of his body, he’s always ready to go with what he puts in his body.”

Not only did Puk post impressive numbers during his first 10 MLB games, but he also did so without his full arsenal and in a relief role, which was something he wasn’t used to. That impressed A’s manager Bob Melvin.

“We put him in a role he wasn’t accustomed to,” Melvin said. “He had to come to the big leagues without all his weapons he’s used to, and that’s how highly we thought of him, to have him come up and still contribute.

“There’s a lot of things I like about him.”

Now heading into his first full season in the major leagues, Puk is trying to carry his momentum from last year into 2020. He started out strong in his first two games of spring training, allowing zero earned runs in three innings of work.

In just a short period of time in the majors and spring training, Puk has already earned the respect of the veterans in Oakland’s pitching staff.

“He’s a calm guy, he’s very focused on what he wants and he takes care of his body,” A’s reliever Joakim Soria said. “He looks like he has strength. That’s very good for a young kid.”

In addition to all of Oakland’s team aspirations, Puk has an individual goal for the 2020 season: join the A’s starting rotation. Starting pitching has been Puk’s specialty at every level.

As he gets more reps in the big leagues, Puk sees this target as attainable.

“You get thrown out there one time, it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve done this before,’” Puk said. “Just over time, it comes easier and easier. It all just comes with experience.”

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