VIERA, Fla. — Tony Armas Jr. was ready to retire.
The thought of recuperating from another operation on his problematic right shoulder weighed heavily on the 27-year-old’s mind this offseason. He returned home to Venezuela and thought long and hard about his future.
“Last year after everything happened, I didn’t want to play anymore,” Armas said. “It was frustrating. I have to thank my agent [Diego Bentz], he told me to give another opportunity to myself and that I deserve it after all those years.
“I’ve got to thank him for changing my mind a little bit.”
Enter Tim Kremchek, one of the Washington Nationals’ team doctors. On Sept. 28, Kremchek, who is also the Cincinnati Reds’ chief medical and orthopedic surgeon, performed a successful posterior capsule release on Armas’ right shoulder.
For most of the last three seasons, Armas has struggled with injuries to his throwing shoulder. He underwent season-ending labrum surgery May 23, 2003, after a 2-1 start. He pitched in just 16 games in 2004, while essentially rehabbing his shoulder.
Last year, Armas was 7-7 with a 4.97 ERA in 19 starts. He missed the season’s first 32 games because of a groin injury suffered early in spring training and didn’t pitch after Sept. 1 because of shoulder discomfort.
However, the surgery went so well that the Nationals re-signed Armas to a one-year, $2.1 million deal Dec. 29.
“Tim came back when he released that capsule and said, ‘Jim this is one of those surgeries that I’ve done, medically speaking, that this is a guy to bet on,’” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “‘If this guy went 7-7 last year, I can see him going 15-10 this year. This surgery should really loosen him up, really help him, really allow him to finish his delivery that he wasn’t able to do last year.’ So that obviously influenced our decision.”
Said manager Frank Robinson: “If we can just keep this guy healthy, he has the stuff to be a big winner.”
Armas’ road to recovery started this winter in Venezuela. He hired a personal trainer to strengthen his shoulder. He also played winter ball, helping lead Venezuela to the Caribbean Series title, its first since 1989.
He also got married Jan. 28 in Venezuela. His wife, Elizabeth, had helped console him after last season’s shoulder injury. She told him he should give his baseball career another chance. Armas was throwing again not long after Kremchek’s procedure.
“I started early, actually,” Armas said. “Four weeks, I started throwing. It was a battle to come back, but everything went well. I started getting on the mound in early December, and I just told the team that I wanted to pitch just two games to get ready for the [Caribbean Series] semifinals. I had all the confidence in myself that I could help them in the semifinals. Thank God, it happened like that. I did very good there and got a lot of stuff out of my head.”
Nevertheless, Armas faces an uncertain future.
“It’s always very remarkable for any pitcher that comes back from major surgery because you don’t know how an individual is going to respond to it,” Robinson said. “If Armas comes back from it, it will be very remarkable.”
He’s scheduled to start against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday in Bradenton, Fla. After the game, Armas will report to Clearwater, Fla., where he will join the Venezuelan team in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.
Armas is penciled in as the No. 4 man in the Nationals’ rotation behind ace Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Ramon Ortiz.
Armas, who is 39-48 with a 4.32 ERA in seven seasons with the Expos/Nationals, is grateful the franchise stuck with him when other clubs might have given up.
“When they were the Expos, they never doubted me, and they always had faith in me,” he said. “My injuries are something you don’t want to happen. I’m happy to be healthy and to be throwing out there. I want to have a season where I can go out there every five days and pitch with no pain. I just want to show one year — being healthy — to show the people what I’ve got.”