- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Erick Fedde held out his right arm and revealed the scar that traces the slight curve on the inside of his elbow.

“I even have this bubble, too,” Fedde said, almost proudly. He clenched his fist to reveal a marble-sized lump in his forearm, which appeared after Dr. Neal ElAttrache harvested the tendon that was used to replace Fedde’s damaged ulnar collateral ligament.

The scar, which resembles the stitches on a baseball, tells a story, one that has become all too familiar for pitchers — and in some instances, position players — who have undergone Tommy John surgery. Fedde had his on June 2, 2014, just three days before the Washington Nationals selected him with the 18th overall pick.

Now in his first full season since having surgery, Fedde is focused on getting back to the level at which he pitched during his final year at UNLV — the level that has the Nationals convinced he’ll develop into a bonafide major-league starter. He feels like he is almost there. In fact, Fedde said he feels his best since surgery and there is nothing more satisfying than that — except continuing to move forward.

“Just having a clear mind, knowing you’re healthy and you’re with your regular team in your first full season, it’s more relaxing than anything,” Fedde said. “Just to be able to get back into the same routines I had in college, it just feels normal, I guess.”

Fedde’s regular team is the Potomac Nationals, the Washington Nationals’ High-A affiliate in the intimate Carolina League, which consists of only eight teams and a 140-game schedule. He made his third start of the season on Wednesday against the Lynchburg Hillcats and pitched 5 2/3 innings. Pulled after allowing three runs and throwing 95 pitches, he struck out nine batters but also walked four, which troubled him.

After starting the game with a leadoff walk, Lynchburg designated hitter Yu-Cheng Chang clubbed a home run to give the Hillcats a 2-0 lead. Fedde struck out the next two batters and got Mike Papi to fly out to center field to end the inning. In the fourth, Fedde walked the first two batters, but got out of the inning unscathed with two strikeouts and a groundout. Those two innings encapsulated the perplexing outing.

When Fedde was around the plate, the Hillcats could hardly keep up. His fastball regularly touched 94 and 95 mph — which was where he pitched comfortably before undergoing surgery — and his slider kept hitters off-balance.

“The leadoff walks aren’t good,” Fedde said after the game. “I got to get the crooked numbers off the board. I had a few innings where I completely shut down, 1-2-3, and then innings that are biting me here and there. As long as I can get that done, I’m happy with how my stuff is looking. It’s just limiting the big innings.”

At this stage of Fedde’s rehabilitation, it’s not as much about the results as it is the quality of the outings. As of Wednesday, he’s 0-2 with a 5.06 ERA in 16 innings, but he leads the league with 22 strikeouts.

According to manager Tripp Keister, a pitcher’s command of the strike zone is often the last thing they regain following Tommy John surgery, which is what the team is seeing now.

“That’s what he’s trying to get, that consistent feel of making his pitches,” Keister said. “I know he feels really healthy and feels strong, but getting that to translate onto the mound and make quality pitches is what he’s working through.”

The Nationals have been down this road before, most recently with pitcher Lucas Giolito, considered the top prospect in the Nationals’ system. Giolito, who spent spring training with the major-league club before being optioned to the minors with a week remaining, had Tommy John in 2012 after the team drafted him 16th overall, despite knowing surgery was a possibility.

Former Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann had the procedure in 2009 before blossoming into a 19-game winner in 2013. Current Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg had surgery in 2010 and won 15 games in 2012. Strasburg is currently 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 21 strikeouts this season.

Kris Kline, assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations for the Nationals, said the team felt very confident drafting Fedde — now ranked as the Nationals’ No. 4 prospect — based on the organization’s successful track record of developing pitchers after this procedure.

More so, Kline was enamored by what he saw on Feb. 14, 2014, when he watched Fedde pitch in UNLV’s season-opener against Central Michigan. He pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings, struck out 11 batters and allowed just one hit. Kline described an athletic right-hander with above-average movement and velocity on his fastball and slider, plus a good change-up that he rarely needed that day.

“We just felt confident we had the right people, the medical staff, trainers and coaches that were going to bring him along the right way like they did with Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Giolito,” Kline said when reached by phone on Thursday. “These are things we communicated about, that it will take some time, and as long as you know that going in, that it will be a process to get him back to where he was, I don’t think we had any reservations about [drafting him]. His stuff, before he got hurt, was outstanding.

“It’s a little bit of a long road and I’m sure it’s frustrating for him. … There’s nobody worried about this guy.”

The 10 months of recovery were the hardest for Fedde, who did most of his rehab at Space Coast Stadium, the Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, Florida. He leaned on Giolito and Strasburg, who often reminded him to trust the recovery process and that everything would work itself out.

Now Fedde finally feels like it has. Whenever he takes the mound, he sees a finishing bite to his pitches, one he didn’t see as much last season in 14 games split between the Auburn Doubledays, Washington’s Short-Season-A affiliate, and the Single-A Hagerstown Suns.

After having to wait 10 months to pitch, Fedde now struggles to wait five days in between starts. He’s excited to be on the mound, and more importantly, excited to feel like himself again.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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