In the three weeks since Félix Bautista suffered a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the Orioles right-handed reliever has made slow but steady progress as October nears.
Bautista hasn’t been ruled out for a return to the Orioles this season, even as the likelihood of a comeback in time for the postseason appears thin. General manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias said last week that immediate action in the form of surgery or an injection wasn’t required, and the team is holding out on a decision to see how Bautista responds to throwing.
So far, in the limited form Bautista has thrown, the closer has responded well. On Sunday, before the Orioles’ game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Bautista took his biggest step forward. He threw a light bullpen of about 20 to 25 pitches, mixing in sliders and splitters.
“It’s still a long process back, he still has to face hitters and throw more sides and things like that,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “For him to be able to go through a throwing progression, to feel good after playing catch and his first side, I think that’s important.”
There’s still a long way to go, but, prior to Sunday, Bautista had only thrown on flat ground. On Friday, he completed a long-toss session that reached a maximum of at least 100 feet. After long toss, Bautista came in and threw pitches to bullpen catcher Joel Polanco from flat ground, although he wasn’t throwing at his pre-injury intensity.
He threw about 10 mock pitches from flat ground, including a few that appeared to be his slider, based on his pre-pitch glove movement.
The whole time, head athletic trainer Brian Ebel hovered nearby. Pitching coach Chris Holt also checked in throughout the session.
Elias said last week there wasn’t a date set for when the Orioles must decide whether Bautista will return this year.
“It doesn’t make sense to do this if it doesn’t seem like there’s any chance of him contributing the rest of the year,” Elias said. “I would still characterize this as something we can’t count on. We are going to take it very carefully. His career and his future and the team’s future are first and foremost. We are very confident that everything we are doing is not in the realm of introducing any additional long-term risk.”
There is precedent to pitching with an injured elbow, however — and Elias has seen it while working with the Houston Astros organization.
In 2018, Astros right-hander Lance McCullers injured his elbow in early August. McCullers missed six weeks with a forearm strain before returning to throw in relief over the final week of the regular season. He appeared five more times out of the bullpen in the postseason, then underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in November.
McCullers had more time off than Bautista might have, though. He suffered the initial injury with nearly two months remaining in the season; Bautista sustained his elbow injury three weeks ago, giving him little more than a month before the playoffs begin.
Still, the Orioles and Bautista are doing this for a reason, even if there’s only a slim chance it comes to fruition.
Baltimore Banner reporter Danielle Allentuck contributed to this article.