The Twins held an extended post-All-Star workout on the field Friday afternoon. At the same time, Ricky Nolasco sat at his locker stall in mostly empty clubhouse with a giant wrap on his right arm.
This was not the picture the organization envisioned when it gave Nolasco $49 million this offseason, by far the largest contract to sign a free agent in team history.
The first half of Nolasco’s debut went abysmally, and he opened the second half still on the disabled list as he recovers from a strained muscle in his right elbow.
“It’s been fun as far as being around these guys, but my performance has been really frustrating,” he said. “Nobody’s more frustrated than me.”
Fans and team officials are probably close on his heels in that department. Nolasco’s signing created a level of optimism that he would make the starting rotation at least more competent and competitive than in recent seasons.
Nobody anointed him a savior, but Nolasco’s track record carried some credibility and an expectation that he would provide more than this: a 5-7 record with a 5.90 ERA.
Turns out, he admittedly hid his elbow discomfort for “a while” as his performance deteriorated, from curiously inconsistent to downright embarrassment.
And now he’s unavailable on the DL, his return unknown.
“It’s miserable,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re part of the team. You don’t feel like you’re one of the guys. It stinks coming to the field knowing you’re not going to be doing anything to help the team.”
Nolasco hurt himself, and his team, by not disclosing his arm trouble much sooner. His reasoning was rooted in pro sports machismo. He wanted to tough it out, fight through the pain, keep going. The fact that he was the new guy in town with a massive contract assuredly contributed to his desire to keep taking the mound every fifth day.
“I wanted to come in here and pitch no matter if I have a big contract or not,” he said. “The [disabled list] is the worst possible thing you want to be on, so you try and avoid it as much as possible. I tried as long as I could.”
Nolasco scaled back his prep work in between starts, hoping that might save his arm strength. His mechanics also got out of whack as he compensated for a drop in velocity. Nolasco said the “biggest issue” is that he had trouble keeping his arm loose between innings.
“You just try and battle through stuff like that, but it gets to a certain point where you’ve just got to stop,” he said.
That line becomes blurred by the inherent pressure athletes feel to fight through pain. Asked where the line lies between being tough and being truthful, Nolasco said: “Obviously when you’re not pitching like you should. That’s when you start crossing the line, when it starts affecting the way you prepare and the way you go out there and pitch. It’s not doing any good for me or the team.”
The breaking point came in a two-inning shellacking at the hands of the Yankees on July 6. Nolasco gave up six runs on seven hits, which prompted a blunt but accurate critique by manager Ron Gardenhire.
“He did nothing,” Gardy noted that day. “He didn’t have anything.”
Nolasco revealed his elbow tightness at that point, which an MRI confirmed. Twins officials were relieved that his injury was nothing too serious. They’re probably also happy to know that their $49 million pitcher had something physically wrong, which is much easier to digest than the scary notion that they signed a $49 million bust.
“I kept asking if he’s OK and he’d say he’s fine,” pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “I can understand. He comes over here and he knows he signed a nice deal. He thought he could pitch himself out of it. But you could see his stuff started going [bad].”
Nolasco played some catch Friday and said his arm felt “decent, no complaints.” The Twins will take things slow and make sure Nolasco’s arm is healed before he is cleared to pitch again. Their hope is that he pitches like the guy who warranted a big contract this offseason once he returns to the mound.
And if he still continues to struggle, then it’s time to panic.