A’s A.J. Puk faces the big boys — and the aftermath of surgery

© Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

MESA, Ariz. — It’s become so common and so successful, Tommy John surgery, that in 2019 the expression — describing reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament — was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2019.

Not that A.J. Puk of the Athletics was aware. Nor most likely did he know when the procedure first was attempted in 1974. For John, a lefthander like Puk, the doctor who developed the idea and performed the surgery, Frank Jobe, said the chances of John pitching again were 1 in 100.

As we know, the odds have been flipped. Everyone returns, including Puk, who Thursday, two years following the surgery, threw two scoreless innings against the Colorado Rockies in a Cactus League game the A’s were to win, 5-2.

Only an exhibition, but as A’s manager Bob Melvin noted, the Rockies “had a lineup that went with the big boys,” meaning in order, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Ian Desmond.

“I want him to face that kind of a look,” Melvin said of Puk.

He faced it and basically erased it, giving up two hits and no runs. That was a reassuring performance for the 6-foot-7 Puk, who was the A’s first choice and the third overall pick in the 2016 major league draft.

“You almost don’t even think about a pitcher after Tommy John,” said Melvin. “It’s almost like (the arm) is double-wrapped. Guys who throw hard, really hard, it seems like a good percentage of them end up getting the surgery. But once it’s done, it’s a double-wrap.”

Puk said he rarely even thinks about the surgery, which took place in April 2018. Unless asked.

“The way I look it,” said Puk, who pitched for the University of Florida, “is just go out every day and do your work.”

Yes, he’s talked to others who’ve had the surgery. All tell him the same thing: You’ll be fine. And though you lost a year in recovery, you’re still young enough to have a notable career.

John pitched until he was 46. John Smoltz had the surgery in 2000 and was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

“You see so many guys come back,” said Puk. “I know guys personally. It’s nice to have those guys to talk to. We have a good team. I just want to work and help them.”

The baseball axiom is you can’t have too much pitching. Certainly in last year’s wild card against Tampa Bay, the A’s didn’t have enough, especially early. Yandy Diaz led off with a home run, hit another in the third and Dsisail Garcia hit a two-run shot in the second. Oakland never recovered, losing, 5-1.

But it’s a new year. Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Marcus Semien and Khris Davis, if he returns to the slugger he was before 2019, would seem to give the A’s enough at the plate. Maybe A.J. Puk gives them what was missing on the mound.

Melvin was more than satisfied with the two innings that Puk pitched.

Puk understands the expectations, both for a contending team and a new guy who was an exceedingly high draft selection.

Even one with a new ulnar collateral ligament.

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