Soriano on the Comeback Trail

Last year's dreadful 99-loss season was one that most Seattle Mariner fans and players would rather forget. Notwithstanding Ichiro Suzuki's 262-hit, season-long tirade that broke George Sisler's 84-year-old mark, the year was remembered largely for its losses. But games weren't the only thing the M's lost in 2004. One of their hottest young pitching prospects at the time, Rafael Soriano, fell victim to an elbow injury early on in the year.

Since then, the young right-hander has endured a stint on the disabled list, season-ending surgery, and a long road toward recovery that he has only recently begun to emerge from.

Soriano had a breakout season in 2003 - his first real opportunity in the bigs - finishing the season at 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 53 innings pitched. Heading into 2004, the hard-throwing right-hander was poised to become the Mariners go-to reliever, but a strained oblique muscle limited him to only four starts during spring training.

After being roughed up in his first three showings of the season, the Dominican Republic native spent some time with a couple of the Mariners minor league affiliates before being recalled to Seattle in early May. Three appearances later, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained right elbow. He was sent to Triple-A Tacoma to rehab the injury, following his stint on the DL.

Pain in his arm returned, however, and Soriano was faced with season-ending Tommy John surgery after tests revealed his elbow ligament was completely torn.

The news left the Mariners with hardly any hope for their struggling bullpen. In the meantime, they and Soriano were forced to look ahead to 2005 and hope for the best. Soriano, though obviously frustrated with his play and the necessity for surgery, was upbeat from the beginning.

"Before I got the operation I talked to a lot of guys about what I had to do following the surgery," he said. "They kept telling me that if I was working hard I'd come back soon."

Tommy John surgery, an all-too-common yet increasingly necessary procedure in the majors, is known in the medical world as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. It is a procedure in which the damaged elbow ligament is replaced with a ligament or tendon from another part of the body (such as the forearm or hamstring). The operation gets its namesake from the former Los Angeles Dodger all-star who was the first to receive and recover from it.

Prior to Tommy John's success with the procedure, elbow injuries such as his and Soriano's were career-ending. Thankfully for Soriano, surgeons have been perfecting the operation for over three decades, allowing today's Tommy John recipients to rehab and recover within about one year and return healthy. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, Chicago Cubs ace Kerry Wood and Atlanta Braves veteran John Smoltz have all received the surgery and gone on to enjoy lucrative careers.

Still, the recovery process is anything but a cake walk, and Soriano knows that all too well. He faced a veritable gauntlet of workouts in his 10-month physical rehabilitation.

"Sometimes I had to do dumbbells, as well as a lot of weights, water…everything. But I do it for my team."

His dedication to the Mariners and hard work during rehab have brought Soriano back into the fold faster than anyone could have hoped for at the outset of his injury, allowing him to pick up where he left off. His recent stay in Low-A Everett was his first foray back into professional baseball since last May. He will work his way through Seattle's minor league system over the next month to reacquaint himself with the rigors of pitching on a regular basis.

"The rehab will be like 20 days," Soriano said, "and after that I think everything will be fine and I can come back to Seattle."

Asked if he was holding back at all so as not to push his arm too much, Soriano replied with a plain and simple "No," noting that his only concern was "a little problem" he had in the first inning while with Everett. Soriano credited that problem to the difference in Everett's mound to the one in Seattle.

Mound inconsistencies don't appear to be fazing the determined reliever, however. In four innings of work for the AquaSox, Soriano recorded seven strikeouts and posted a 2.25 ERA. He still has several weeks left to work on minor league hitters, though, and the true tests lie ahead in Seattle.

Once he returns to the Mariners' active roster, Soriano will not only contend for the approval of his teammates and coaches, but also look to win back the Mariner fans. Unlike previous Mariners who have returned from long-term injuries, Soriano has only been with the club a few years and has yet to establish himself as a regular in the minds of the M's faithful.

"Yeah I do worry about that," Soriano admits, "You know, me, I've been out a long time and sometimes with the fans in Seattle you have to worry because they know about the injury. But, you know, I'm healthy and I'd like to stay with Seattle for a long time and I think everything will be okay."

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