Riske’s business: Brewer reliever back in action
Now, club officials as well as the team’s fans are seeing what they had been missing.
Since returning from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery earlier in the month, Riske has been a welcomed addition to a revamped bullpen. In five scoreless appearances covering 4 2/3 innings, the 33-year-old right-hander has allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out four batters.
“It feels good to be back, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Riske said of his early success. “That’s what I feel I should do, get people out.
“In my own mind, I feel I should be able to get every single batter out. Obviously, that doesn’t happen. But that’s how I try to go about my business.”
For the past two years, Riske was unable to go about that business as expected. Things went well in the early weeks of his first season with the Brewers, but his effectiveness gradually decreased, resulting in a 5.31 earned run average in 45 appearances.
As it turned out, there was a reason for that slide. Riske’s elbow began hurting him, making it nearly impossible to get full extension on his pitches. He finally shut it down in early September and had surgery to remove bone spurs from the troublesome joint.
Riske expected to report to training camp the following spring ready to go, but it didn’t take long to realize the elbow still wasn’t 100 percent.
“I knew I had the bone spurs taken out, so I thought it was just a little soreness I had to work through,” he said. “The doctor told me after the surgery that the ligament was fine.”
When the Brewers went to San Francisco to open that season, Riske was playing catch during a workout and remembered saying to himself, “Wow. Something’s different, not right.”
Inserted into the third game of the series, Riske was tagged for four hits and two runs. He would not throw another pitch for the remainder of the season.
Riske embarked on several weeks of physical therapy with poor results. It still hurt to throw the ball, so he finally conceded to allow Los Angeles specialist Lewis Yocum do exploratory surgery on June 2.
“I didn’t want to have another surgery,” Riske said “ But something had to be done. I tried doing rehab, but it would go back and forth. Bad one day, OK the next.
“Dr. Yocum told me he didn’t know for sure it would be ‘Tommy John.’ He wanted to go in and look at it, maybe clean it up. But he went in and said the ligament was a mess. He also said I had a huge calcium deposit on the ligament. He said it was record-setting, that’s how big it was.”
Yocum removed a portion of tendon from below Riske’s left knee and transplanted it into the elbow, replacing the frayed ligament. After coming to in the recovery room, Riske knew what he’d be doing for the next year, and it didn’t include pitching in the major leagues.
“They tell you it’s probably going to be a year, maybe 10 months if you’re lucky,” Riske said. “Obviously, it involves a lot of hard work. It becomes tougher mentally than physically. Basically, you have to let the calendar turn.”
Riske did most of his physical therapy at a facility near his home in Las Vegas. The good news was that he got to spend time with his family, including newborn daughter Myla, that a player normally isn’t afforded during the season.
“Everything happens for a reason, I guess,” he said. “It was great spending time with my little girl.”
Riske also has two young sons, Payton, 6, and Maddox, 4. They weren’t accustomed to having daddy home that time of year but still had just one thing on their mind: baseball.
“I had to spend a lot of time playing catch left-handed with them,” Riske said. “That’s all they want to do. That’s non-stop with them. We watched all the games on TV. At first it was hard, but I like to see all my friends and how they’re doing.
“But, after a while, it was, ‘Daddy, when are you going to be back on TV?’”
The answer: not for a while. It did help to be back in uniform with the Brewers in spring training as Riske embarked on a conservative throwing program designed to have no setbacks. His elbow felt good enough to pitch then, but Riske knew he needed more time to return to action.
After a 30-day stint in the minors, Riske finally rejoined the Brewers on June 8. A day later, he pitched a perfect inning against the Cubs at Miller Park, barely able to keep his heart from pounding through his jersey.
“It has been very humbling,” he said. “When I got back, that was awesome. It was emotional. I was very excited and nervous. If I didn’t have that feeling, something would be wrong after all of that time.”
Each time out, Riske has felt stronger. Finally able to get full extension again with his elbow, he has resumed throwing split-finger fastballs, providing another weapon to attack hitters.
“The way he’s throwing it now compared to what I saw in spring training last year is a huge difference,” manager Ken Macha said. “He was up with everything, couldn’t finish his pitches.
“Whatever was bothering him in that elbow, he did the right thing getting it fixed because he had a hard time getting anybody out. That makes a big difference, getting that finish on your pitches.”
This is what the Brewers had in mind when they gave Riske that three-year deal at the winter meetings in ’07. You can never forecast injuries, especially with a pitcher, but the team can finally get a return on that investment over the remainder of this season.
Better yet, Riske can throw a baseball without wincing and actually look forward to continuing his career beyond 2010.
“It has been one thing after another,” said Riske, who recently reached the 10-year mark in the majors, which fully vests a player’s pension.
“Nobody wants to get hurt. You don’t want to go through something like that but you can’t say, ‘Stop hurting.’ You want to be healthy.
“There were only two things I wanted to do. I wanted to throw a baseball without pain, and I wanted results. I don’t care about anything else.
“I feel like my arm is getting better each day. They say it takes 18 months to get back to full strength. When you come back, you want to be back to stay. So far, it feels great.”