The journey back from major surgery has been frustrating for Baltimore Orioles left-handed reliever Richard Bleier.
He was one of the club's most effective relievers in 2018 until a left lat injury derailed his season.
Bleier worked hard during the offseason to make the Orioles' 25-man roster out of spring training, but he opened the season by allowing seven runs during his first four appearances. He was placed on the injured list with left shoulder tendinitis April 11.
Bleier wasn't able to get proper movement on his fastball, and he still feels lingering effects from the injury.
"I'm just not quite rebounding as well as I would like," Bleier said. "... I feel like there's just a hurdle that I'm not quite getting over yet and I think it's more of a time thing than anything. It's just not quite there yet."
"He is just not getting the shape on his pitches that he's used to," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. "He's disappointed in his start and a credit to him that he's come off a major injury and is ahead of schedule. I know we've been patient with him, and I feel really good with how we treated him since spring training with allowing a lot of recovery time and that sort of thing. But he was pushing the fast-forward button a little bit, too."
When he returns, Bleier will look to regain the form he showed in 2018. He had a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings throughout 31 appearances before getting injured last year. During the first six weeks of the 2018 season, opponents batted just .225 against him. His ERA was below 2.00 in each of his first three major league seasons.
When asked what was working for him in 2018, he said, "Everything, honestly. It was just execution. I had a game plan for everything and each and every situation. That's kind of the key to success."
That success was put on hold in the eighth inning of a 5-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox June 13. Bleier grabbed his throwing arm in pain following a pitch and waited for head athletic trainer Brian Ebel to assess the situation.
Team doctors performed an MRI one day later that revealed the season-ending injury.
"I came in with two outs in the seventh and finished that inning," Bleier said "I might have felt something there, maybe. My warmup pitches were fine the next inning. I went back out there for the eighth. The first pitch of the eighth inning, I just blew it out."
Bleier admitted the rehabilitation process was difficult, but there was one silver lining: the timing of the injury.
"I started throwing off the mound in January," he said. "I think I was just a week behind the rest of the guys in terms of when they started throwing live BPs to when I did. I got into the [spring training] games one or maybe two weeks after them."
Bleier was satisfied with the amount of work he was able to put in leading up to the start of the regular season, though he admits it wasn't easy.
"It was not that much fun, honestly. It was pretty rough," he said. "After post-surgery, it was range of motion stuff for awhile. Then, the focus was strengthening my shoulder, while continuing my range of motion. Finally, transitioning into a throwing program that led right up to spring training. The timeline worked out well. Based on the recovery time, it was right up to spring training."
Bleier's entire career has been a lesson in resilience. He was selected by the Texas Rangers in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and then spent nine years in the minor leagues. Bleier pitched for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic as well.
Bleier signed with the New York Yankees prior to the 2016 season and made his big league debut against the Toronto Blue Jays May 30, recording two outs. He managed a 1.96 ERA in 23 relief appearances and became the first Yankees pitcher since 1913 to not allow a walk or register a strikeout in each of his first five major league outings.
On Feb. 16, 2017, the Yankees designated Bleier for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for first baseman Chris Carter. Bleier was traded to the Orioles five days later in exchange for cash considerations.
Bleier appeared in 57 games during his first year in Baltimore, going 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. The following year, he was 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 1.22 WHIP before getting injured.
Hyde has been impressed with the arc of Bleier's career and his work ethic.
"His path to the big leagues is a unique one a little bit," Hyde said during spring training. "He's just worked his rear off to get to where he is, and he's had so much success in the big leagues the last year and a half, two years. I'm really happy for him."
Former Orioles closer Zack Britton, who is now with the Yankees, has stayed in touch with Bleier. Britton was impressed by the way Bleier was able to develop as a pitcher.
"When he came to us he was already at the stage where he had figured out what he does well," Britton said. "Really it was just fun to watch him pitch and be successful with his cutter. It was fun to watch because it was like he was always underappreciated for what he brought to the table."
Britton suffered a ruptured Achilles in December 2017, but he returned to the Orioles in June 2018 and worked his way back to being an effective pitcher. When Bleier went down with the lat injury, Britton told him to be patient.
"I never had that type of injury; mine was completely different," Britton said. "I remember when he tore his lat last year and I told him it was going to be tough, I had literally just gotten through it. I told him to stick with rehab and try not to push it."
Bleier is embracing the challenge of competing with a rebuilding team. He could play a pivotal role with the club once he returns from the injured list.
"It's definitely a different atmosphere," Bleier said. "Obviously, it's a whole new staff and it's a newer, younger team. It's a good mix. I feel like we're in this together, just trying to figure out how this process is going to work."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 253: April 2019