Freak injury turned pitcher Jimmy Nelson into a Dodgers reclamation project
It was freakish the way Jimmy Nelson blew out his pitching shoulder in 2017, diving back to first base when he thought better of trying to stretch a single into a double in Wrigley Field.
Even more bizarre was what happened immediately after Nelson, then a promising Milwaukee Brewers pitcher, tore his rotator cuff and labrum in the top of the fifth inning of that Sept. 8 game.
Nelson, thinking he had merely dislocated his shoulder, popped the joint back into place at first base, shook his arm a bit and remained in the game.
He took the mound for the bottom of the inning and got Javier Baez to ground out, struck out John Lackey, hit Jon Jay with a pitch, walked Kris Bryant and got Anthony Rizzo to fly out to center.
Nelson threw 17 pitches in the scoreless inning, one clocked at 93 mph, all with a shredded shoulder that would require major surgery and a grueling 15-month rehabilitation.
“Yeah, that was crazy,” said Nelson, who signed an incentive-laden, one-year, $1.25-million deal with the Dodgers in January. “It was straight Iron Mike. It worked out. We won the game 2-0. We were chasing the Cubs at the time. We were one game behind in the division.”
It is this kind of determination, along with a repertoire that made him one of the better young pitchers in the National League before his injury, that the Dodgers believe will be an asset — most likely out of the bullpen but possibly in the rotation — in their quest to win a World Series.
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“What he’s done at the major league level obviously excites us,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s got the ability to pitch in a playoff game. It’s been a few years, but the stuff I see, he’s kind of a middle-rotation guy. It’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”
Nelson, 30, who has been slowed this spring by hip and lower-back injuries, is a low-risk, potentially high-reward investment for the Dodgers, who have had some success with recent upside plays, most notably infielder Max Muncy, utility man Chris Taylor and reliever Brandon Morrow.
If Nelson throws 60 innings or pitches in 40 games this season, his $2-million club option for 2021 will become a $5-million mutual option. His 2021 salary will increase based on innings pitched in 2020, from $6 million with 110 innings to $9 million with 170 innings.
It seems like a good deal for the Dodgers, who will pay Nelson a significant amount — the deal tops out at about $13 million — only if he is good enough to win a rotation spot and durable enough to keep it.
It does not seem like a great deal for Nelson, who has no clear path to a rotation spot with Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Alex Wood and Julio Urias ahead of him. He could end up a Ross Stripling-like hybrid or in a long-relief role.
Nelson, who mixes a 93-mph fastball with a slider, curve and changeup, would have had a better chance of a rotation job on a lesser club, or one with a more glaring need for starters. Asked why he signed with the Dodgers, Nelson answered the question with a question.
“Why not, you know?” he said. “I try to stay in my lane as far as being a starter or reliever. I’m not looking necessarily at the personnel, the roster crunch. I’m looking at where I have an opportunity to get better, where I can win, and I really want to be a part of this team, no matter what that role is.”
Before his injury, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Nelson threw at least 175 innings in three consecutive seasons (2015-17). He had his best year in 2017, going 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts, striking out 199 and walking 48 in 175 1/3 innings.
Then came his fateful dive into the bag.
“I hit one in the gap and was thinking two,” Nelson said. “I got stuck about halfway between first and second, and I know Baez and some of their infielders are pretty savvy with throwing behind runners and stuff. It was a normal baseball reaction play.”
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The resulting injury was abnormal. In addition to the dislocation, the labrum, rotator cuff and capsule tears, there were bone chips and nerve damage in the shoulder.
“A lot of stuff that happened in there,” Nelson said. “It was a long road back, and there wasn’t much literature to lean on with that combination of things. The rehab was painful. It was pretty miserable.”
It was 21 months before Nelson pitched in a big league game, returning to Milwaukee’s rotation last June. After giving up 14 earned runs in 13 innings of four games, Nelson returned to the injured list because of a sore elbow.
He closed the season with a 4.50 ERA in six September relief appearances. When the Brewers did not offer the arbitration-eligible Nelson a contract, he signed with the Dodgers. He is scheduled to resume throwing off a bullpen mound Sunday.
“I’m looking to put all that behind me, and I know these guys will help me do that,” Nelson said of his arm troubles. “I’m in a pretty good place now. I’ve been unbelievably humbled by this whole experience with the injuries, my health, the offseason, free agency, and I’m just really grateful to be here.”
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