A grueling 15-month rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery that included setbacks in May and July has finally come to an end for Keynan Middleton. The Angels reliever was activated for Tuesday night’s game against the Texas Rangers in Angel Stadium.
“I’m really excited—it’s been a long time,” Middleton, 25, said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in my head right now. I’m just ready to pitch and to be back with these guys.”
Middleton, who had a 2.04 ERA and six saves in 16 games last season, tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while pitching against the Minnesota Twins on May 13, 2018. He underwent surgery and was sidelined for about 10 months before he resumed throwing this spring.
He hit a glitchwhen a sore elbow sidelined him for a week in May. His first minor league rehabilitation stint was interrupted in mid-July by a mild case of ulnar neuritis in his elbow.
“I was actually really close [to returning in July],” Middleton said. “I just went out there one day and I couldn’t feel my hand. I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ I got an MRI test, and everything was cool, so I was happy about that. It was just a bump in the road and I got through it.”
Middleton, whose fastball averaged 96.7 mph in his first two big league seasons, resumed his rehab stint Aug. 10. After one more appearance for Class-A Inland Empire, he pitched five times for triple-A Salt Lake, allowing one earned run and two hits, striking out five and walking three in 4 1/3 innings. His fastball was clocked at 94-96 mph.
“The whole time, it’s just a guessing game,” Middleton said of the rehab process. “You’re not supposed to let it eat until you get into games. So to finally get out there and let it eat as I started getting more comfortable my velo started getting higher. I’m getting more comfortable every time out.”
Middleton, a third-round draft pick in 2013 out of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., was converted to the bullpen in 2016 after struggling as a starter in the minors. He made his Angels debut in 2017, going 6-1 with three saves and a 3.84 ERA in 64 appearances. He began last season as the closer.
Middleton tried to remain even-keeled throughout the rehab process, and when there were setbacks “I told myself not to look at everything so negative,” he said. Regular contact with teammates Tyler Skaggs—before Skaggs’ death on July 1—and Andrew Heaney, both of whom had Tommy John surgery, helped.
“This guy,” Middleton said, pointing at Skaggs’ locker next-door, “and Heaney were the two guys who checked in with me all the time. They had the same surgery a couple years ago. Heaney’s been there the whole time. He’s been sliding in my [direct messages] and texting me. I thank him for that.”
Angels manager Brad Ausmus said Middleton will be eased into action, preferably starting in a lower-leverage situation and not pitching in back-to-back games initially.
“But I don’t foresee a long wait before that happens,” Ausmus said. “And it wouldn’t bother me to put him in a game that was close. Ideally, it would be a game that was out of hand in favor of us, but it wouldn’t bother me to put him in a close game.”