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Thumb surgery behind him, Alex Wilson sets sights on regaining role in Boston's bullpen

January 19, 2014

Alex Wilson’s 2013 season ran the gamut of emotions. Not only did he make his major-league debut with the Red Sox, but he also suffered a thumb injury that eventually resulted in the relief pitcher having to undergo surgery. With spring training less than a month away, Wilson is at the stage in his rehab where he feels comfortable with the idea that he’ll be ready to go when camp in Fort Myers, Fla. officially opens for business.

PAWTUCKET – Eventually, Alex Wilson arrived at the understanding that his ability to properly grip a baseball had been compromised.

What was originally deemed a sprained right thumb last July evolved into something far more problematic to the point where surgery went from a potential last resort to being inevitable. Wilson admitted that everything “was tried under the sun.” From having the thumb placed in a cast and later a splint, all of the precautions taken were done with an eye toward eventually returning to Boston’s bullpen.

Alas, the 27-year-old righthander was officially shut down following Pawtucket’s run to the Governors’ Cup finals. Last Wednesday marked three months since Wilson went under the knife to medically repair his thumb, and according to the reliever, everything remains on track for him to answer the bell when spring training commences next month.

“I’ve been 100 percent cleared to start baseball activities moving forward,” said Wilson when reached last week after flying to Boston to get checked out by the Red Sox medical staff. “Everything feels great. I have no pain related to the thumb. Hopefully we just keep going forward with the same rate of progress since day one (following the surgery).

“In my eyes, I’m expected to be ready for everything. At the pace I’m going, I think that’s a realistic goal to reach,” Wilson relayed when the topic of hitting the ground running come spring training was brought to his attention. “I don’t think that’s too big of an ambition.”

Wilson has been able put one of the more difficult chapters in his pro career in the rear-view mirror to the point that he’s counting down the days to when Red Sox pitchers and catchers officially come together. He plans to dock in Fort Myers, Fla. a few weeks ahead of the Feb. 15 report date. When he was placed on the disabled list this past July 9, it was viewed at the time as a mere speed bump in a season that saw the 2009 draft pick make his big-league debut and go in the books as the first Pawtucket pitcher to get summoned to Boston.

Looking back, smoke signals were sent out that something wasn’t quite right with Wilson, a former minor-league starter who relocated to the bullpen early in the 2012 season. In what amounted to his final two big-league appearances in 2013, the Texas A&M product was tagged for six earned runs in two innings.

Returning to the mound in late July, Wilson ended up making two separate rehab stints at the Triple-A level. The first go-around was halted after four appearances, three of which were scoreless. Wilson remained on Boston’s disabled list for most of August before returning to the PawSox just as the team was set to embark on its playoff quest.

He pitched to mixed results in the postseason, allowing four runs on three hits in one-third of an inning during Game 4 of the first-round series of Rochester. In the finals against Durham, Wilson picked up a victory with a scoreless frame in Game 1 before coming through in similar fashion during Pawtucket’s 15-inning loss to Durham in Game 3 of the finals, an outing that ended up being the final straw in an up-and-down season.

All told, he posted a 4.88 ERA in 26 appearances with the Red Sox and a 3.71 ERA in 14 regular-season appearances with the PawSox.

Wilson never pitched on back-to-back days during his second rehab bid. Based on the explanation he provided as why that was the case, it made perfect sense why Boston elected to not throw him back in fire upon the conclusion of Pawtucket’s campaign.

“I was continuing to lose grip strength and having pain, but at that point, I was trying to gut it out to see if I was going to go back up and help the big-league team,” recalled Wilson. “At the end of the year, we sat down and decided that if I wasn’t going to be 100 percent, I’m not really going to be super beneficial. That’s when we started to lean toward surgery. It was definitely something that needed to be done and taken care of. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to perform at the level needed to pitch in the big leagues.”

When Wilson went on the DL in early July, the Red Sox looked to Brandon Workman to see if the youngster could fill the middle-innings void. As the team advanced deeper into the postseason, Workman’s worth seemed to grow exponentially to the point that Wilson had a “Wally Pipp” aura about him in that he was unable to return to the majors.

“You work your whole career to get where you are and something as small as a thumb takes you out,” Wilson said matter-of-factly. “It’s just one of those unfortunate events that I got hurt at the worst time possible, but that’s why you have other guys. Obviously Workman did a great job – he actually came up the same day I was placed on the DL. We’re good buddies and we talked about everything.”

Wilson’s surgery was done in Cleveland and performed by Dr. Thomas Graham, who in December operated on Shane Victorino’s right thumb. The specifics of what was performed upon Wilson entailed “having an anchor placed through my ligament” and “my nerve had to be cleaned up because of all the scar tissue that had been built up over the years.”

While Wilson was taking an important step health-wise, the Red Sox were in the midst of authoring a World Series title, something that was not lost on the pitcher-turned-patient.

“I definitely felt like I was part of the team, but it’s one of those things where growing up, you want to pitch in the World Series. Your team goes, but unfortunately you’re injured and can’t be a part of it,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but it was great to see those guys take the whole thing. Hopefully there’s a next time and I can be there to enjoy the moment with them.”

Wilson was in a cast the first six weeks following surgery. He began throwing on a mound in mid-December and envisions throwing on flat ground at some point in the coming weeks, a step which will allow him to incorporate breaking pitches.

“I have a few more steps to take as far as strength is concerned, but I’m really close. In another month or so, I should be good to go,” Wilson said. “The grip when I play long toss and the way everything comes out now, it feels great. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to feel this good.”

While regaining his former role with the Red Sox figures to be a tough road to hoe given the crowded makeup of the bullpen coupled with organization likely to take a conservative approach with him during spring training, the fact that Wilson is on Boston’s 40-man roster should translate into an opportunity at some point. Still, Wilson admits that he’s not going to tread lightly and accept that he’s likely ticketed to begin 2014 with the PawSox.

“I’m going to try and earn a spot,” Wilson vowed.

***

As PawSox hitting coach Dave Joppie explained recently, the work or interaction with the players does not cease just because it’s the offseason. If anything, it just takes on a different tenor.

“We text back and forth. Now that everything has died down, I’ll send ‘congrats’ messages to (Ryan) Lavarnway, (Will) Middlebrooks and (Daniel) Nava. I’ll hear back from them at different points during the winter,” Joppie explained. “Any and given moment, I’ll get a text that says, ‘Hey Jop, how are you doing?’ I’ll also send one out to the PawSox guys asking how the offseason is going and ding, ding, it’s Jackie Bradley, Justin Henry or Brock Holt.

“The personal relationships still go on and it’s important to us. It builds credibility with the coaches that these guys are thinking about us in the offseason,” Joppie added. “People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. They see what goes on for nine innings, but all the other inner workings during the season, spring training and the offseason, it’s helps with the development of the players because they know they we have their best interest at heart.”

While studying a player’s swing via video is an area Joppie prefers to stay away from, he will do so upon request. To illustrate, former PawSox outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker sent Joppie some clips following a 2012 Winter Ball stint in Mexico.

“They’ll say ‘Hey Jop, I’m working on something. What do you think?’ There is stuff like that going on,” he said.

***

Though some may view the 19 games and 57 at-bats Bryce Brentz compiled in the Dominican Winter League as a prime chance to make up for the time lost in 2013, the Pawtucket outfielder provided a different spin. For the first two weeks, a stomach bug hindered him. By the time the 25-year-old started to feel back to normal, he was forced to dig out of a deep slump.

“I thought I needed some more at-bats, but it’s not the regular season. My whole thing was to seeing a lot more pitches and work on being selective,” said Brentz, who ended up batting .105 in the Dominican with a .190 on-base percentage. “I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, but I learned a lot. If I go down there again, I know what to expect.”

Brentz appeared in just 88 games for Pawtucket, the year featuring raw power – his 19 home runs was tops among Red Sox minor leaguers – and surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee.

“I was excited to get back out and play and see how my knee was,” said Brentz. “That was important.”

Brentz as well as fellow outfielder Alex Hassan, pitcher Steven Wright, new manager Kevin Boles and coach Bruce Crabbe are scheduled to appear at McCoy Stadium this coming Saturday as part of the annual Hot Stove production the PawSox put on. There remains the possibility that another player or two could be added to the guest list.

The wintertime staple runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and is free to the public. Tickets for the upcoming season will also be available for purchase.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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