With little fanfare on minor league Opening Day for High-A Frederick, right-hander Branden Kline pitched two innings of one-hit scoreless relief in his first game action since 2015, when an elbow injury cut short his ascent to the big leagues.
Visiting teams aren't afforded many luxuries, like walk-up music, in any park. But when Kline, 26, returns to his native Frederick next week to pitch at Harry Grove Stadium for another step in his climb back up the minor league ladder, he'll have a nine-year-old Fabolous jam to welcome him back. The song? "Feel Like I'm Back."
"I've been gone and away/For too long, a mistake/But right now, I feel awake/I'm feeling like I'm back, just like I'm back."
Every appearance now is a milestone for Kline, who has spent years rehabilitating in Florida and didn't lose a bit of the optimism that helped make him one of the more popular players in the Orioles system. And he still an intriguing arm.
"It's been three years now, close to three years now since the last time I played competitively in an actual game," Kline said Tuesday at the Keys' media day. "I'm just happy to be here, happy to compete and try to move on from my career."
The Orioles made Kline their second-round draft pick out of Virginia in 2012, and after a strong 2014 for his hometown Keys, he was primed for a breakout. He'd embraced a weighted throwing ball program that was meant to strengthen his arm and he added fastball velocity in 2015 while posting a 3.66 ERA in eight starts at Double-A Bowie.
But that May was when his elbow started barking, setting off the worst version of every pitcher's nightmare. As is typically the case, the team and Kline tried "every avenue" outside of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, from rest to platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to more rest. He waited as long as possible before he started throwing, but Kline said "it ended up getting to the point when surgery is needed when it went in one of the [fall instructional league] games."
"So I went to see Mr. Good Ol' Dr. [James] Andrews," Kline said. "We're now on a first-name basis — and you never want to be on a first-name basis with a doctor, especially as an athlete. I had that, the surgery went well and kind of toward the end of 2016, beginning of 2017, that's when I started having issues on the other side of the elbow. That's kind of what we went through all of last year."
So, where Tommy John surgery involves going in on the inside of the elbow and essentially rethreading a new ligament in place of the ulnar collateral ligament, Kline began to feel soreness on the outside of his elbow once he ramped up his throwing. Doctors were puzzled.
"I was having a sharp, shooting pain going through," Kline said. "That's weird, because there's nothing back there except for bones. There's no tendons, there's no ligaments, there's nothing that can tear. So at first, they said maybe it's just my triceps muscle, forearm muscle just getting a little irritated.
"So, I took a break from that, and when it wasn't getting any better, I went to see Dr. Andrews again, and he thought there was maybe some tissue, some plaque in the joint line. That was when I had my first scope done. He found a wad of tissue in the joint line. I thought that was the issue — we're all covered, everything was good. Then I come back from that, after the surgery, after eight weeks of not throwing, everything's feeling good again."
Then, Kline snapped his fingers. Just like that, the problem was back again. It was the same place, and the same shooting pain, but a new set of eyes was required.
"Fortunately, the Orioles didn't give up on me," Kline said. "They sent me then to Dr. [Christopher] Ahmad. And within the first five minutes, Dr. Ahmad was like, is there anything that's just different, that doesn't feel right? I told him, 'Every time I rotate and go up, there's a clicking sound.' And it was almost like a light bulb went off in his head. He said, 'Usually, that just means you have some tissue lodged in your joint.' I thought I just got that taken out? What ended up happening was there was more tissue farther up the joint line that was deferring pain down, so they took that out, haven't had an issue since. So, all that has kind of led to where we are now."
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In January, as he was throwing his third or fourth bullpen session and pitching full-go, he realized he was at the point when a setback might occur. It didn't happen then, and hasn't since. He's taken well to his new life as a reliever, and likes the idea that he could ultimately use his whole arsenal early without having to set up hitters.
"A good year for me is playing healthy," Kline said. "Being able to be out here with the guys, whether that's here, Bowie, Norfolk, the big leagues — just being out there and being able to compete and show I'm ready to go and can be trusted. That's all that matters to me. Obviously, I want to be able to move up, but I want to improve. If I can improve, I can get better — that's something I can control. Other things will work themselves out. That's a good year for me."
Thursday was a good start toward that, Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty said.
"Exciting," Beatty said. "I think he's back better than he ever has been before. It's just about getting back in the saddle and solidifying his delivery and his ability to command the zone a little more efficiently."
Beatty is excited to have Kline around the Keys' young staff, for however briefly he might be there, and sees his progress as deserved.
"The work ethic that he's always had and brought to the table with this organization has been off the charts," Beatty said. "This guy is one of the hardest workers we've got in the organization, and he's a pleasure to work with."
Kline's return was a bright spot to those around the organization. Now in his seventh year with the Orioles, Kline has gotten to know plenty of players at all levels of the system. His return to the mound caught the attention of several in the clubhouse in New York, including pitchers Mychal Givens, Mike Wright Jr. and Dylan Bundy.
"He works so hard, and it sucks to see a guy who's passionate and loves the game and was unable to play for the last three years," Wright said. "But he's such a good person and such a good friend, and like I said, he's a hard worker. It's awesome to see him come back — not just come back but be strong and come back to normal."
Said Givens: "I'm happy to see him coming back and recovering. He's always had a great attitude. With the college experience he has, the [College] World Series experience he has, he's always had a humble mentality. ... It's really good to see him coming back and hopefully coming back to the right spot he should be at. Hopefully, everything comes back to him to the path to be a big leaguer."
Manager Buck Showalter brought Kline's performance up without prompting Friday in New York.
"He's been a real pleasant surprise," Showalter said, adding that he was 93-97 mph with his fastball Thursday. "Brian [Graham] wants to get him going in Frederick, get him going and everything. But that's interesting."