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Mike Clevinger walked off the mound in May both emotionally exhausted and cautiously confident after pitching for the first time in nearly a year and a half.
The San Diego Padres pitcher passed his first test, striking out four in e Af4 2/3 innings against his former team, the Cleveland Guardians, his first outing following a stressful 16-month rehabilitation process after a second Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. In one limited start, the hard-throwing righthander looked like the dominant pitcher who the Padres gave up six players for in 2020 to add strength to its pitching staff for a playoff run.
His biggest mental challenge, he says, would come the morning after — would the elbow hold up or could it swell and cause additional problem? Clevinger was encouraged and relieved to wake up pain free. Now his debut would be considered a complete success.
“Basically, when I woke up the next day and realized that everything’s in one place,” Clevinger says. “That’s when I knew it was like, the elbow’s good to go.”
The season up to now, has been more than just wins and losses, although a 2-3 record has been a little bit disappointing. Despite the record, Clevinger has struck out 48 in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA while on a limited pitch and inning count. Now at the All-Star break, Mike Clevinger heads into the second half of the season stronger, healthier, and more commanding and confident than his pulse-pounding debut.
And who could blame Clevinger, whose career was uncertain following a second surgery? Most of his success can be attributed to a dedicated 16-month rehabilitation process following a second Tommy John surgery.
In addition to his rehab, Clevinger changed many aspects to his wellness routine, including a recovery-based training regimen that added an abundance of juicing to his nutrition, a near daily dose of hot and cold therapy as well as new obsession with Pilates.
Those changes have helped Clevinger finally settle in and continue to make strides in regaining his form and speed to pre-injury levels. He’s almost there.
“My first two starts I kind of had that rookie heart rate, where it’s at 1,000 miles an hour,” he says. “I had that puppy pant on the mound and not really into the flow of the game. After that though, everything has kind of settled in. The game became immensely slower — I could read swings, and think about what I wanted to do. My heart rate wasn’t spiking — I felt like I was back home.”
As the Padres were seeking their first playoff appearance since 2006, the franchise sought out Clevinger to bolster their pitching staff for the fall playoff push, trading six players to the Cleveland Guardians in August of 2020 for the right hander.
Mike Clevinger was a year removed from his best season ever, going 13-4 in 2019 with a 2.71 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 126 innings. At the same time, Clevinger was hit with the injury bug, including undergoing knee surgery after tearing the medial meniscus in his left knee during 2020 spring training. He started off 2-1 with the Padres, then in September of 2020, Clevinger began feeling some pain in his left elbow after going seven innings in a win against the San Francisco Giants. After missing one start, Clevinger, who had already undergone Tommy John surgery on the same elbow in 2012 while in the minor leagues, came back for a start against the LA Angels but was quickly pulled after one inning when the pain began increasing. He says an MRI revealed the UCL was torn once again. Not that there’s ever a good time to tear an elbow ligament, but with the Padres in the playoffs, the timing couldn’t be any worse.
After sitting out the Padres’ Wild Card winning series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Clevinger tried to work through the pain, getting the nod for Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I tried to strap it in for playoffs and just see if I could get it going just for like one game — you can’t miss playoffs,” he says. “It was pretty painful, I took some anti inflammatories, that were really beneficial, but I was basically trying to tape it together. It felt like bones were colliding together before releasing.”
However, after a solid first inning, his pitch speed dropped considerably, an indicator that something wasn’t quite right.
“The first sitting went really well. I even had my velocity,” he says. Then I went to throw a changeup, and when I fully extended my arm trying to manipulate the pitch, I hit my elbow on my knee. It was like lightning bolt hit my arm — I was done. That’s when the pain set in.”
He was pulled immediately after, and the Padres were swept the eventual 2020 World Series champion in three games. A few weeks later, Clevinger re-signed with the Padres for two years, but also decided on undergoing a second Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, a risky operation for a pitcher, one that would require him to shut down for the 2021 season.
It would be seven and a half months before Mike Clevinger would pick up and toss a baseball. Confined to a bulky elbow brace immediately following his surgery, eating with a fork and knife became an embarrassing public spectacle for the pitcher. “I had to start eating with my left hand,” he says. “I felt like a clown at restaurants. It was like, ‘Does this kid know how to eat?’”
The brace also presented the unpleasant challenge of getting a decent night’s rest. “It changed my sleep habits completely,” he says. “Because of the brace you’d have to find ways to get comfortable. So I had to learn to sleep sideways on a pillow. Even now, I’ve become a side sleepier — before I used to sleep on my stomach.” Those small nuisances, however, paled in comparison to the long road Mike Clevinger was facing: To get back on the mound, especially after a second UCL surgery would require a long and uncertain rehabilitation process. And the odds weren’t in Clevinger’s favor that he would ever again pitch professionally — or at least match at his peak performance. A 2016 study showed that only 55% of Major League players return to their pre-injury level of play, adding additional stress to an already trying time.
“Having the second one was a little worse, mentally, just because the odds of coming back from a second one are said to be much slimmer,” he says. “I actually felt, though, like my second Tommy John process went way smoother than my first one.”
It may have been smoother, but the process played out over small, progressive increments stretched out for nearly a year a half. Since his ability to pick anything up was greatly reduced, Clevinger says his team had him use a weight vest to help with lower-body movements — squats, lunges and other exercises,
One of the first goals was regaining dexterity in the right arm. Once that began stronger Clevinger says he began redeveloping grip strength, a requirement for a pitcher throwing normally in the mid to high 90s.
After seven months, and no longer using a brace, light lifting was added to the routine. Clevinger began incorporating more rotational movements into the routine — starting off with some plyo ball wall. That soon progressed to more powerful med ball tosses until finally, Clevinger was allowed to pick up and toss a baseball — lightly and at a close distance.
“I just had the right the right guys behind me, and they found a way for me to have fun every day,” Clevinger says. “It was almost like I found a way to challenge myself every single day.”
Now came the next challenge: regaining the velocity he possessed in 2018 when he struck out a career-high 207 batters. Used to clocking in the 90s, Clevinger was now barely hitting 70 mph —from 45 feet nonetheless — which added additional frustration to an already extended rehab. “I’m an extremist at heart,” he says. “But they had to pull the reins back a little, which was still positive because I was in a good spot.”
Soon, Clevinger was hitting 90 again, and it was time to take it to the next step — his first rehab start in the minors. However another setback — this time a slight knee strain — held up his progress momentarily before finally taking the mound in April with Triple-A El Paso, where he impressed the coaching staff enough to get back to the Majors.
“Man, that was an 18-month process,” Clevinger says. “Every single day it was reassessing stuff — whether it was grip strength or getting tested on Force Plates, or measuring the torque of my arm. It was constant testing. I basically felt like an animal in a cage the whole time.”
An additional silver lining to Clevinger’s successful return is his rededication to year-round routine, especially when it comes to recovery and staying ready when he’s not taking the mound.
“I really started obviously focusing way more on recovery than before when it used to just be like going balls to the wall all the time,” he says. “I would recover with more load. Now, [since rehabilitation], it’s just like a bunch of different breathing exercises, exercises to help get your hips aligned before I even touch a ball or even touch a weight.”
One of his favorite routines includes almost daily infrared sauna sessions (“Shout out Almost Heaven infrared sauna,” he says. “I crush the infrared sauna nonstop) when he and the Padres aren’t on the road. Immediately following a 40-minute sauna sweat session, he’ll hop in a cold tub (“Renu therapy cold tub is the best cold tub in the game,” he adds), for a bit of contrast therapy.
“I got it set at 39 degrees, pop in for three minutes,” Clevinger says. “I built up to about six or seven minutes, then hop out and get in the sauna.”
He’s also become an avid juicing fanatic, oftentimes downing up to six drinks a day. He begins his mornings with a celery juice breakfast and adding blends — such as phytonutrient-rich beets and carrots for gut heath; turmeric and black pepper for anti-inflammatory purposes; and spinach, parsley, dandelions for digestion — throughout the day. He says juicing has helped him feel healthier and more energized more consistently.
“For those really hot into juicing, I highly suggest just like try 12 to 16 ounces of celery juice to start your day before you have water anything wake up, do that and get in the sun for 30 minutes.
In the first half of the 2022 season, Clevinger’s fastball has been clocked at 98 mph, hitting his pre-surgery peak, which was in the 96-97 mph range — a far cry from barely touching 70 less than a year ago.
Lower-body training is a big part of Clevinger’s strength gains, he says, which includes several sets of backward sled walks he says, helps strengthen his knees.
One of the main contributions to his strength gains has been incorporating Pilates to his regular workout routine. Despite being stereotyped as a dancer-type of exercise, Pilates is a brutally effective core stabilizer that helps increase hip flexibility and power. It’s also known to help reduce injury, one of the reason why many top athletes, including Clevinger, now swear by it.
Oh man, the first time I did it I was sore in places I didn’t know you could be sore. I had muscles underneath my muscles,” he says. “It was it was eye-opening experience — it’s just great for stability and helping control my power and my movements.”
It seems to have been working, judging by Clevinger’s strong final performance, despite a 3-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Clevinger struck out eight in six innings and 94 pitches, a good sign that the rehab — as well as the Pilates — are a success on the mound and in the training center.
“No doubt it helps you get synced up,” he says. “The core stability helps control my power and movements when it comes to pitching. I mean, you can be as strong as you want, but to throw a baseball your body’s got to be moving in the right patterns.”