Orioles beat writer Eduardo A. Encina talks about catcher Matt Wieters' recovery from Tommy John surgery and his progress during spring training. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Matt Wieters wanted to make his first Grapefruit League appearance at catcher as normal as possible, but everyone at Ed Smith Stadium knew Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Twins wasn't ordinary for Wieters, the Orioles organization or its fans.
And when Wieters walked from the bullpen to the dugout, he received an ovation from the crowd sitting along the first-base line, a fitting welcome as he prepared to catch his first real game since May 4.
"It meant a lot to me to get that kind of ovation," Wieters said. "To get back there behind the plate, it was a special day. … Adrenaline is a great thing in baseball. It can carry you through 162 games, but it's big for me just to get back there and make throws and feel like I'm seeing the game from behind the plate. That's why I enjoy it and spend most of the time [doing it]."
After completing countless hours of rehab since undergoing Tommy John surgery to reconstruct a ligament in his right throwing elbow and having his every move during this spring training put in the spotlight, Wieters was finally able to throw at 100 percent effort in a game.
"We were going over the lineup," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It was the first time [head trainer Richie Bancells has] been able to put the green light on him [on the injury report]. It's always been red [this spring]. So in the meeting, he's going ... 'Wieters, full go, available today' and I said, 'Stop, Richie. Say that again.' I did it about three times."
The Orioles had a plan to ensure that once Wieters was cleared to throw, he could transition seamlessly into spring training and hopefully be ready for Opening Day. He served as a designated hitter in six games and logged six innings behind the plate on back-to-back days in a pair of exhibition games in which throwing wasn't allowed.
"It's a lot of roads," Showalter said. "It's another road today he's got to cross. It's been a long process for him. … It was tough on him, watching last year."
Wieters was confident in his arm — the team timed his throws to second base and they were close to his pre-surgery times — but he was still looking forward to the first runner who would test the arm that has thrown out 33 percent of base stealers over the course of his career.
It appeared that opportunity would come quickly when speedy Twins leadoff man Aaron Hicks drew a walk to lead off the game, but Hicks was erased when the next hitter, shortstop Eduardo Escobar, hit into a double play.
"I thought he might go," Wieters said. "Anytime a guy gets on base, fresh arm, you think he might take off."
Wieters caught six innings, but was only able to test his arm once. With two outs in the second inning, catcher Josmil Pinto dropped a swinging bunt.
Wieters sped out from behind the plate and threw to first, but drew first baseman Chris Davis off the bag.
"I almost tried to make it a little bit too hard on myself," Wieters said. "I wanted to try and really test it out. I had a little more time than I actually had, than I actually thought I had, so I've got to get out of the mode where I'm trying to test it out and just go out there and play."
Wieters is slated to catch again on Thursday at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next goal will be catching in back-to-back games and then making sure he's ready for Opening Day, all while knowing that the ultimate goal is making sure Wieters can be as dependable as he was before the injury, when he averaged 129 starts at catcher the previous four seasons.
"I've caught a lot of games in the past," Wieters said. "I think we will probably have to take a little bit lighter than what we've done in the past. But at the same time we will start with one and see how that goes. See how it comes into the park each day. I know Buck will be smart with it."
As the innings passed on Tuesday, Wieters said the game became more routine. Knowing he no longer had any restrictions gave him peace of mind. He got into a comfort zone calling the game. Orioles starting pitcher Bud Norris was one teammate glad to have him back behind the plate.
"What he brings to the game, not only just the mind, but what he does back there, the scouting reports and knows the game, knows the hitters, that's just the guy that he is," Norris said. "He's a warrior and he loves to play. He'll come out there and say some good things every once in a while. It's just that extra vote of confidence that what he's throwing down is probably a good idea. He has an idea for all these hitters and he's been around the game for a long time."
Wieters went 0-for-3 at the plate and is hitless in 23 Grapefruit League at bats, but said he's confident that the hits will come.
"I always like catching and feel like when you are playing in the field you can separate your at-bats," Wieters said. "You don't have to sit around and worry about your last-at bat for three innings or so. Catching is something to where you can forget about it as soon as it's over and try to help your team win another way."
How Wieters recovers physically the day after his first game will likely provide more answers, but Showalter agreed it was a positive first step.
"There's still a different level when the game is on the line, when the adrenaline is flowing, everyone is operating at somewhat full speed," Showalter said. "But he's crossed a lot of barriers. I'm sure he's welcomed the opportunity to get some full-game stuff under his belt. The swinging bunt, I loved to have seen what was going through his head as he's running out there, but he's fine. I expect him to be able to ready to go (Thursday). I was glad he was able to get six innings under his belt."