Braves’ Winkler returns from TJ surgery in MLB debut

NEW YORK – As Braves pitcher Dan Winkler neared the ready stage in his comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery, team officials asked him a few weeks ago in Florida whether he’d like to join the major league team in September rather than wait to pitch in the Braves’ Instructional League in October.

“So I was like, absolutely,” Winkler said, smiling as he recalled the exchange.

And so, what transpired Monday night was a unique situation in which a 25-year-old pitcher’s first game of any kind since Tommy John surgery was also his major league debut. Winkler faced three batters in Monday’s 4-0 loss to the Mets, sandwiching two strikeouts around a walk in two-thirds of a scoreless inning of work.

There were plenty of nerves, but they were only glaringly apparent on his first pitch, an off-target fastball that hit umpire Fieldin Culbreth in the right knee after darting past the mitt of veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski. “Broke his shin guard,” Pierzynski said of the blow, which nearly knocked Culbreath off his feet.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “A.J. was giving him a little ribbing, said, ‘You can tell your kids the first pitch you threw in the big leagues, you missed the catcher completely and hit the umpire.’”

“It only happens to me,” said Winkler, smiling as he talked with a few reporters after the game. “Just ‘cause it was me. That’s what I told (Andrelton) Simmons, too. I said, of course that happens to me with my first pitch in the big leagues. I felt bad. When I get excited I kind of cut (pitches) a little bit, and I cut my four-seamer. (Winkler laughs.) It wasn’t very good, but it worked out.”

Indeed, he ended up striking out that first batter, left-handed-hitting rookie slugger Michael Conforto, who had homered off Shelby Miller in the second inning. Winkler walked the next batter, Ruben Tejada, after getting ahead in the count 0-2. But he recovered quickly and struck out the third and final batter he faced, lefy Kirt Kieuwenhuis.

For a guy who’d never faced big-league hitters, it was impressive. Add to that the fact that the only hitters Winkler had faced in 15 months were a few Braves in simulated-game conditions last week, and it was a doubly so.

The Braves selected Winkler in the December Rule 5 draft from the Colorado Rockies. They took him even though he was only six months into his elbow-surgery rehab, figuring it would be worth the wait and the requirement of keeping him on the 25-man major league roster for most of the first half of the 2016 season once he was activated from the disabled list.

Before he got hurt, Winkler had posted a 1.41 ERA and 71 strikeouts with 17 walks in 70 innings over 12 starts with the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate.

“It’s pretty nice to get him out there, get his feet wet,” Gonzalez said. “He’s had a long road of rehab, and it’s nice for him to go out there. We didn’t want to use him any more than we did, 20 pitches, that was it. We got that accomplished today.”

A day later, after watching video of Winkler and discussing his debut with coaches, Gonzalez said. “I think he ended up with 16 (pitches). Struck out two left-handers. We’ll probably give him a couple of days before we use him again, then whenever we can use him…. The best thing is, he came out of it healthy. He’s going to go to the Arizona Fall League (in October and November). So I don’t know how many more appearances he can get here, but it’d be nice for him to get two or three more here, then continue on to the Fall League and then be able to help us next year.”

Winkler was still beaming Tuesday over what had happened the night before. He had stayed up until the wee hours, answering texts and emails.

“Hundreds, literally,” he said. “They’re still (coming in) right now. I’m a small-town kid from Illinois, went to a high school of 200, so it’s a big think for my area.”

He was also up late talking with five family members who’d been at the game – his parents, his wife, Camille, and an aunt and uncle who live nearby in New Jersey.

“I was up till, like, 3,” he said, smiling. “It was just crazy. Phone blowing up. I don’t know. It’s cool. … My uncle actually works a couple of blocks from where (the Braves are) staying right now. That’s pretty cool. So my mom and dad came and stayed with them. Just worked out perfect…. My wife is a nurse and she recently just got done working, so she’s been traveling with me and trying to enjoy the ride as well.”

He had so many emotions – about making it back from Tommy John and making his major league debut – that Winkler was glad to have some family members to share it with. And he only became more emotional reading and replying to texts he received from former coaches and training-staff members of the Rockies as well as those at the Braves’ spring-training headquarters, where Winkler spent most of his summer rehabbing.

“I texted them back and said, couldn’t be here without you guys,” he said. “But that made it pretty special, all the hard work and everything just to get back here. Still got a lot of hard work ahead of me. Still and up and down rollercoaster, just to stay here, to stay healthy.”