Dodgers Win One, but Lose Valenzuela : Shoulder Injury Puts Left-Hander on Disabled List
Fernando Valenzuela, who has made 255 consecutive starts over his 8 seasons as the Dodgers’ most reliable pitcher, was put on the 21-day disabled list Sunday after it was determined that he had injured the front part of his left shoulder during Saturday’s loss to the Houston Astros.
Valenzuela, struggling this season with a 5-8 record and 4.39 earned-run average, is expected to be out for more than 21 days. Dr. Frank Jobe, who examined Valenzuela Sunday morning at Dodger Stadium, said he doubted that Valenzuela would be out for the season, but he issued no timetable for Valenzuela’s return.
“It’s bad news that I can’t pitch,” said Valenzuela, who has never been on the disabled list or officially treated for an injury. “But, yeah, it’s nice to know what it is. The doctor said if I try to continue throwing, I have a chance at (surgery). It would become worse and worse. Right now, I just don’t touch a ball and rest it.”
Jobe said that Valenzuela’s injury is similar, but considerably less severe, to the major shoulder injuries that threatened to end the careers of Dodger pitchers Alejandro Pena and Mario Soto, each of whom required arthroscopic surgery.
But Jobe said Valenzuela will not require shoulder surgery because he did not tear--though he stretched--the anterior capsule, an enclosing structure which surrounds the joint and contains ligaments that stabilize the joint. Valenzuela’s rehabilitation, Jobe said, will include various stretching exercises for his left shoulder and arm, but he will not throw a ball for at least three weeks.
Because of an off day this week, the Dodgers will temporarily use a four-man rotation. Outfielder Jose Gonzalez, who has shuttled between the Dodgers and their triple-A Albuquerque club in recent weeks, was activated to fill Valenzuela’s spot on the roster.
The Dodgers will not need a fifth starter until early next week at Cincinnati. Don Sutton, rehabilitating a sore right elbow, might be ready to return, and there has been speculation that the Dodgers will attempt to trade for a left-handed starter.
There has also been much speculation among scouts and Dodger opponents that Valenzuela’s poor outings over the past two seasons have been caused by an injury. Valenzuela, who will become a free agent after earning $2.05 million this season, has lost between 5 and 10 m.p.h. on his fastball and, in many outings, his screwball has been ineffective.
“He didn’t show any symptoms before; he just didn’t throw that well,” Jobe said. “It wasn’t until yesterday, when he had the pain, that he said something. I think he’s been honest. But I don’t know if he thought that just a little pain could be a big thing.”
Jobe said there is no way of knowing when Valenzuela first injured his shoulder, because Valenzuela had not complained of discomfort until Saturday. Jobe said that the injury to the front part of the shoulder is a “fairly common thing” for veteran pitchers.
“It could be faulty mechanics that caused it,” Jobe said. “Or it could be throwing too much. And once you hurt it, it starts a cycle you can’t stop.”
After reviewing a videotape of Valenzuela’s outing Saturday, in which he allowed a 2-run home run in 4 innings before leaving, Jobe said he noticed a flaw in Valenzuela’s pitching mechanics caused by the injury.
“When he would bring the arm up to throw, he would feel pain,” Jobe said. “Then, he would drop the shoulder down to protect it. And it stiffens the muscles in the shoulder. When you drop your arm, you lose the fastball, and then he’d try to throw too hard to compensate. He was holding back. It’s not a fluid pitching motion.
“His initial pain is in the capsule and the rim of the cartilage, which is stretched when the ball of the joint slides forward. The synchronicity of the muscles and joints has to be in concert. Once it gets out of whack, it messes up the mechanics.”
Jobe said the only way he can be certain that Valenzuela did not tear the capsule tissue in his shoulder is to perform arthroscopic surgery. “I’m not 100% sure, but there’s not enough evidence (of a tear) that you’d want to operate,” Jobe said.
Both Pena and Soto, who was recently signed by the Dodgers and is rehabilitating his shoulder, have needed almost three years to return from their injuries. As with the other two pitchers, Valenzuela has some loose tissue fragments in his shoulder, “but not enough to make it a big deal,” Jobe said.
“I do think it is the same thing as Alejandro and Soto had,” Jobe said. “But I think we caught Fernando in plenty of time , so we don’t have to do it (operate).”
Jobe said that Valenzuela will work to strengthen the rotator cuff, composed of four muscles in the shoulder area. Jobe said that once the rotator cuff is strengthened, the inflamed capsules will shrink to normal size.
Three weeks ago, Valenzuela gave the first indication that he might have a shoulder problem. He said he had problems getting his shoulder loose while warming up in the bullpen but that he had no soreness or stiffness while pitching. In spring training, Valenzuela said that he had stiffness for the first half of the 1987 season but that it did not affect him after the All-Star break.
Although only 27, Valenzuela has averaged at least 250 innings in his 8-season career. Last season, Valenzuela had a career high ERA, at 3.98, and set a Dodger record for most walks, at 124. This season, Valenzuela has a 4.39 ERA, has given up 12 more walks than strikeouts and allowed 138 hits in 135 innings.
Valenzuela said Sunday that he did not feel pain in his shoulder or arm until Saturday’s start.
“I’ve had a bad year,” Valenzuela said. “It’s not my arm. In the beginning of the season, I needed more time to warm up, but I didn’t feel anything until the last start.”
Manager Tom Lasorda said he had suspicions about the state of Valenzuela’s arm.
“I always felt that way, that something was wrong,” Lasorda said. “But he would never tell you because he’s such a tremendous competitor. It’s good to know, though, that we’re able to take care of him. The longer he pitched with it, the more injurious it is to his health.
“He feels like he’s letting the team down. I told him that even the best car, when it’s 8 years old, gets a flat tire. I’m hoping in the final month (of the season), he will be able to come back.
“After he won 21 games in 1986, I saw him go a little backward in spring training. I think that’s when it started. That was the first time, to me, he didn’t look like the same Fernando.”
Neither Jobe nor Valenzuela would speculate on a return date.
“It may well be longer than three weeks,” Jobe said. “You just can’t tell. You’ve got to start with something. How long, we’ll find out. I don’t think he’ll be out for the season. At least, three weeks.”
Valenzuela, though saying it will feel strange not to pitch, said he did not want to rush his rehabilitation.
“I don’t want to go out and pitch anymore if I’m not ready,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t help the team, and I don’t want to kill my career.”
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