NEW YORK — Drew Rasmussen on Thursday night had some of the best stuff and one of the most dominant performances of his Rays career.
But as he faced his final batter of the seventh inning, Rasmussen felt something wrong around his right elbow. “Like nerve sensitivity,” he said, “not really any severe pain.” The velocity on the final few of his 76 pitches was down, which pitching coach Kyle Snyder noticed, too.
Having already had two Tommy John elbow surgeries, Rasmussen, 27, knew enough to be concerned — “anything dealing with the forearm/elbow is is terrifying for me” — and had a Friday morning MRI.
The result was another staggering blow to the Rays’ pitching staff: a strain of the flexor muscles near the elbow that will sideline Rasmussen at least into August. He could be out for the full season-plus if surgery is needed, which he and the team are hopeful it isn’t.
“Pitchers get hurt, and it sucks,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said. “I feel awful for Drew, what he’s gone through to get himself to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and have the performance he did (Thursday) night and the performance he’s had over the last year-plus in our rotation. To have this happen, my heart breaks for him. That’s first and foremost.
“But pitchers get hurt, and we know it’s something that we’re going to have to account for over the course of a season. Kind of the ‘next man up’ mentality is something we’ve embraced.”
The Rays likely will call up either top prospect Taj Bradley or Cooper Criswell to start Wednesday and take Rasmussen’s place in a rotation that in April lost Jeffrey Springs to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and is still a couple weeks away at best from getting back Tyler Glasnow, who strained his left oblique early in spring training.
Yonny Chirinos and Josh Fleming already have moved into the rotation, though sometimes pitching behind openers, and now the Rays depth will be further tested.
“I’m confident that we’ve got guys that are capable of doing good things for us,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But we’ve cut into our depth quite a bit; it’s no secret. So we’re certainly going to be leaning on guys to continue to do what they’ve done. And if there’s a way to tick it up a little bit more, that’d be welcomed.”
Bendix made a similar pitch: “Anytime that you’re losing a front-line starter, it’s a difficult thing. It’s something we’ve overcome in the past, something that we always know is lurking there. Pitchers get hurt a lot, even the healthiest ones. It’s absolutely a challenge. It’s something that our guys will rally behind. And we’ll see what happens.”
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Another option would be to acquire a starter via trade, and Bendix said the Rays “absolutely will want to be aggressive; we will absolutely want to try to make this team as strong as possible.” But he acknowledged it’s rare to make major trades this early in a season when most teams feel they could still make the playoffs and don’t want to deal key players.
Because the flexor muscles sit on top of the ulnar collateral ligament and serve in a way to protect it, there is always a concern that a strain could be indicative of issues with the ligament that could require a Tommy John procedure.
Rasmussen said the initial imaging “looked OK” regarding the UCL, and the initial diagnosis from team orthopedist Dr. Koco Eaton, who happened to be in New York for the weekend, was that surgery was not initially recommended. Rasmussen will get further evaluation next week by specialist Dr. Keith Meister.
“At this point, we don’t think surgery is needed,” Rasmussen said.
At the minimum, he will be shut down from throwing for eight weeks, and then if his arm feels better start in a slow buildup program followed by a rehab assignment. A further complicating factor is that Rasmussen already has had two Tommy John surgeries, in March 2016 and August 2017.
Rasmussen was placed on the 60-day injured list, and reliever Chris Muller was called up from Triple-A Durham to add bullpen depth.
“It sucks on a day where things are going pretty well to have something like this pop up,” Rasmussen said, “but it unfortunately is a part of the game and there’s always a risk to taking the ball. It’s just a part of it.”
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