"I even remember the day," Tucker recalled. "It was Aug. 7, 2003. I was pitching for Double-A Mobile in Huntsville, AL. I just came in for a regular save, you know, nothing felt different or out of sync. It was just one pitch—a fastball—and I felt something let go in my elbow. I knew right off the bat. I had to come out of the game, and I pretty much knew what it was when it happened. My arm has been very healthy my whole career, so when something like that happens something's wrong."
This happened just two years after the Padres drafted him in the 21st round after his junior season at the University of Maine. The 25-year-old, originally from Boston and still a diehard Red Sox fan, is one of many pitchers bouncing back strong after the surgery, a 29-year-old process named after pitcher Tommy John who first needed the surgery. Where a torn elbow ligament was once career ending, Tucker knows very well that pitchers nowadays like Kerry Wood, Adam Eaton, or Billy Koch are coming back stronger than ever.
"I think nowadays [the surgery has] become more of a routine for a lot of guys," Tucker said. "There are so many players who have had the surgery that a lot of teams see the success rate, and a lot of guys have come back stronger. They'll sign guys to a couple more years in a deal just because they've had surgery. I've seen it happen."
He's seen it happen because it happened to him. The Padres showed confidence in him by keeping him on the 40-man roster after a down year after surgery.
"That was actually a shocker to me when they did put me on the roster because it was two months after I got hurt," he said. "I was right out of surgery. I pretty much knew that they had a lot of confidence in me and were going to give me a lot of time to get healthy, and that's what they've done.
"Last year was the first season back pitching, but realistically it was my second year on the 40-man roster. That makes this year even more of a bigger year for me. Everybody that I've talked to that has had the surgery say it's your second full season where you really feel comfortable again, where you really get everything back again, your velocity back, and your command back. I'm excited for this year to get here because I feel great and I'm ready to go."
That doesn't mean there weren't any lingering "what if" hesitations upon first returning to the mound though. Tucker, who said that the reason he got hurt was from being overworked in the couple years leading up to the injury, experienced a constant battle through mental and physical pain the first year back.
"The whole strengthening process and getting the major motions back, it was painful at times. Once you get back in the games again and throwing again, it's tough to trick yourself into believing that it is healthy. Your mind doesn't let your arm work the way it wants to. It's been over two years now, but when I was healthy last season pitching, it was always a constant battle being healthy and to just let the ball go."
Tucker's teammates, however, had nothing but good things to say about the way he has progressed. George Kottaras, Tucker's catcher in Mobile and in the fall league, was impressed in particular with several of his pitches.
"He's got great stuff; a great fastball and great breaking ball," Kottaras said. "In the fall league I guess you could say he finally figured it out, though he had a good changeup to begin with. But his changeup really came along, so he's really come a long way."
Fellow pitcher Sean Thompson, who also happened to be Tucker's roommate in Mobile, credited Tucker with being the best BayBears pitcher this year.
"I know his numbers didn't show it, but the damn guy throws mid-90s with a slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-two-by-four-with-rusty-nails-sticking-out-of-it curveball, and his changeup, when he throws it, will definitely make him a must in the bigs."
Last year in Mobile, Tucker was 3-2 in 62.2 innings with a 5.31 ERA, and in the Arizona Fall League he finished at 2-0 in 14.1 innings with a 5.02 ERA. However, with runners on base, opposing batters hit only .231 off him. Most of his struggles came simply because he had a difficult time with his control — 49 walks in Mobile; nine in the AFL.
"My first year in rookie ball I had a huge problem with throwing strikes," Tucker said, "and it wasn't anything mechanically. It was all mental. It was in my head that I had a problem throwing strikes. Once you think that, you're in trouble. If you're up there just trying to throw strikes, you're going to have a hard time doing it.
"You got to go up there just knowing that you're going to throw strikes. That's a big difference from a lot of young pitchers that I see. They're trying to throw strikes and not believing that they're going to throw strikes, and that's a huge mental aspect of the game. But I'm still kind of learning because I still have a few problems with my command, and I know that's what it is. It's a tough thing to master."
Maybe even a tougher thing form him to master as a pitcher happens when he's on the other side of the 60.5 feet distance from the mound to the plate.
"Everybody used to be a great hitter in high school," said Tucker, who had just five plate appearances with no hits and a walk. "I even hit a little bit in college. I feel like I'm a pretty good athlete and am pretty comfortable in there, but when you don't see pitching for like three or four years and you get into facing some Double-A pitchers, throwing 90-plus mph, it makes the ball look like it's going about 110 mph. It's a lot of fun to get in there and try to take a hack, but it's an ordeal for me. As you really lose your timing, it's a tough thing to get back. I give a lot of credit to hitters now that I've seen what they've got to do."
Hitters in the Southern League, here's some important information for you. Though Tucker does give you a lot of credit, no, do not expect him to cut you slack on any one pitch.
After the interview occurred and in a move first announced by David Jay of MadFriars.com, Tucker was designated for assignment by the Padres with the acquisition of Mike Piazza. That means he has been removed from the 40-man roster. If no one puts a claim in for his services, he will remain in the Padres organization.