Purke taking slow-and-steady path back

Purke taking slow-and-steady path back
March 4, 2013, 3:15 pm
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It's been 367 days since Matt Purke took the mound at Space Coast Stadium in a Nationals uniform, handed the ball by Davey Johnson to pitch his team's 2012 exhibition opener against Georgetown University, and offered the entire organization reason to believe his path to the big leagues might be a quick one.

Purke, the highly touted left-hander from TCU drafted in 2011 and lured to professional ball by a four-year, $4.15 million, major-league contract, tossed three scoreless innings that afternoon against the Hoyas. More importantly, his shoulder felt strong after some questions about its stability during his final college season and the Arizona Fall League.

Put that all together, and the Nationals had legitimate visions of a fast track to the majors for a highly advanced pitching prospect.

Flash-forward one year, and Purke's path to Washington has all but ground to a halt. He appeared in only three games last season for low-Class A Hagerstown, he was roughed up to the tune of a 5.87 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP and his shoulder was barking once again.

Several MRIs taken of the shoulder showed no significant damage, so the Nationals arranged for Purke to undergo an arthroscopic procedure in August, one that would allow doctors to get a better look at the joint and see what, if anything, needed to be repaired.

Purke admits now he was nervous he might have been seriously injured.

"Yeah, I had those concerns," he said last week. "I didn't know going into it what it was going to be, because all my MRIs came back negative, there was nothing wrong with me. But I was like: 'There's got to be something. So going into the surgery, I was a little nervous about what was going to happen."

Turns out Purke's worst fears never were realized. Though doctors did clean up the shoulder and remove a couple of inflamed bursa sacs, the pitcher's labrum and rotator cuff were intact.

All he needed now was time to get himself back into shape and back on the mound. That process continues this spring, with Purke still restricted to two bullpen sessions per week, his throwing restricted to 50 percent velocity.

Frustrating as it might be, the 22-year-old understands why he must take the slow-and-steady approach for now.

"They just want to make sure I'm 100 percent when I get back and not rush me," he said. "And then that way I can pitch the whole season and not have any problems throughout. It's really not that bad. It's kind of hard to stay patient, but I understand the process."

Purke is still several weeks away from ramping things up and throwing at full velocity. He won't face live hitters until after camp has broken and he's stuck in Viera among the other rehabbing players at extended spring training.

If all goes well, the Nationals plan to send Purke north in early-summer, giving him an opportunity to throw up to 100 innings in the minors before he's shut down per the organization's practices with all pitching prospects.

"I've been getting good reports," Johnson said. "He's throwing good. He's feeling good. We're still going to be conservative. It's probably still May [before he joins a minor-league team]. ... Just going slow."

If nothing else, the process has allowed Purke to hit a reset button on his career. He pitched through shoulder pain in college and upon first joining the Nationals, but hoped all along it was nothing serious. He's relieved to know now that he should be fine over the long haul.

"It's finally put everything at ease, knowing there's nothing majorly wrong with me," he said. "Now I just have to build myself back up and I should be good to go from here on."

And though one year ago he might have been starting to conjure up visions of a quick path to the big leagues, perhaps as soon as 2013, Purke now understands it'll be worth the wait if he can climb the ladder again at a more reasonable pace.

"This is one year out of, hopefully, many," he said. "If I do things the right way now, I won't have to worry about it in the future. If I can just get my strength up, go out and throw my 100 innings this year, then next year they'll give me more leash. And from there, I can just get to play baseball the way I know how to."