Advertisement

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters puts arm worries in past, sees success ahead

Matt Wieters said he's long since overcome the mental hurdle of thinking about his surgically repaired right elbow before he rifles a throw. And while his arm strength isn't yet where he wants it to be, he's comfortable with the pace of what's been a methodical recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Yet whatever that pace, there are those moments that make you think the old Matt Wieters is back. And one of those slices in time was perhaps the pivotal play in the Orioles' 1-0, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees on Thursday night.

Advertisement

With the go-ahead run on second base in a scoreless game and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Wieters caught Yankees shortstop Starlin Castro inching too far off base. After a slight delay, Wieters popped out of his catcher's stance and ripped a throw to second that beat Castro to the bag.

"For me, it was just something where I thought I had a chance at him, so I thought I'd take a shot," Wieters said. "I thought I'd take a shot at him. I had all the confidence that [closer Zach] Britton would be able to make the next pitch to get out of the inning anyway, so with the type of secondary [lead] he took, I thought the out was there, so I decided to take it."

After the game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter called it the play of the game because it got his team — and Britton — back into the dugout. Britton went out in the 10th and struck out the side after a leadoff walk, and the Orioles won in the bottom half of the inning on Pedro Alvarez's sacrifice fly.

But for teammates who have seen Wieters go through a long journey since undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014, his making that throw without hesitation was a promising sign he's back.

"I think that play kind of sums it up a little bit," Britton said. "He was sitting back there for nine innings and he's got an opportunity like that. He's got a long throw and he's got to be on point with the throw and definitely has to let it go to get a guy sleeping a little bit at second. That's a tough play, especially when your arm is cold and everything like that.

"He's done a few times with that this year. He's obviously not thinking about it if he's going to attempt those plays. I think he feels good. He's smiling out there and throwing good, and I think that's a good sign."

Wieters said Friday that while he's overcome thinking about his elbow before he throws, he's noticed that his throws are coming out smoother and quicker this season. It's still early, but he's thrown out two of five potential base stealers, a 40 percent success rate that exceeds the current 32 percent league average.

"I've been there," Wieters said. "I've been mentally ready to make any throws. This year, it's been a lot more reaction as opposed to last year really having to think through some things, which is good. That's where I wanted to get it. The arm is still improving. [I'm] still trying to get it stronger and stronger each day, but just, reaction-wise, this year has been a lot different than last year in that aspect. I feel like I can react to whatever situation is out there and be good with it."

Wieters overcame a spring training scare, when he left a game March 12 after one inning following a throw to second base prompted deeper concerns because of the nature of his elbow history. But the Orioles exercised caution, and Wieters was back for Opening Day.

"I'm pleased with how the ball's coming out," Wieters added. "It's a thing where even last year, when it still feels good, sometimes you just don't have your strength there. That's what I'm noticing, that I'm able to kind of aim a little bit lower on throws and be able to get the carry now than I did last year. Last year, I had to play a lot more of kind of a fade-in there than this year. It's nicer to be able to see this year, just eyesight-wise, the different trajectory I'm able to throw at this year as compared to last year."

Showalter — who has watched Wieters' play and body language carefully — has seen a difference already this season.

"You can see," Showalter said. "He's talking about pitching and sequence and hitting and not [throwing]. Just because a guy is doing this [extending and stretching his arm], it doesn't mean his arm is hurting. I just walked by him in the weight room coming down here and he's soaking wet. He's going through a workout. I think some of this has actually been good for he and [backup catcher] Caleb [Joseph] because we should have two fresh catchers as we go through the season. At some point, Matt may catch more. We'll see. It'll be his call."

Wieters has said he wants to get back to playing behind the plate as regularly as he was before the surgery — he averaged 129 starts at catcher over a four-year stretch from 2010 to 2013 — but so far, Wieters has caught on back-to-back days just once, which came April 29 and 30.

"We'll get there," Wieters said. "I think that's the thing. We want to make sure as long as we keep strengthening it and it keeps getting stronger and stronger, we're on the right track. And Caleb's done a really great job with the staff, we feel really comfortable right now. And I know and Buck knows and everybody in this clubhouse knows that we're playing for September and October.

Advertisement

As long as we have a good thing going, it's not going to be a macho ego thing where I have to catch more games. It's just a matter of, 'Hey let's keep a good thing going while we can.'"

The Orioles have a strong catching duo with Wieters and Joseph, who has grown into a capable starter in Wieters' absence and would have been the everyday catcher had Wieters not accepted the Orioles' $15.8- million qualifying offer in the offseason.

And the team's faith in Joseph allows the Orioles to make sure Wieters, who becomes a free agent again next offseason, can continue to strengthen his arm while not overexerting it.

"I don't know time-wise, but I think there's definitely room to strengthen it," Wieters said. "One, it's being able to not only [have] the strength to be able to make those throws, which I think I'm getting pretty close, arm strength-wise, but also being able to make the throws and make them again tomorrow and make the good throws.

"It's been a slow process where it took a while to get the strength back. Now, the strength is there and it's about being able to repeat that strong throw every time. And it's a slow process, but as long as we're moving in the right direction, that's encouraging."

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

Advertisement
Advertisement