Buried in the fine print of Chris Sale’s 15-strikeout victory over the Cubs on Sunday was an achievement that should have been written in bold letters, highlighted in yellow magic marker. It was a performance quite extraordinary for a guy whose comeback is anything but ordinary.
The return of Nate Jones is not your fastball down the middle. It’s a twisting slider that catches both sides of the plate. It’s a long, crooked journey that easily could have ended back at his home in rural Kentucky instead of in a major league box score with a 0.00 ERA.
Jones’ 16-month odyssey began at spring training in 2014. The White Sox reliever suffered a hip injury, except it wasn’t a hip injury.
“We couldn’t figure it out,” Jones said, looking back.
But the pain was there in his hip. He felt it everytime he landed on his front leg to pitch.
“It hurt bad enough that I tried different landing spots to try to ease the pain.”
“My hip was bothering me so much I couldn’t concentrate on my pitches.”
And it showed.
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The White Sox opened the 2014 season against the Minnesota Twins. Jones appeared in two games, he faced five batters and gave up four runs without recording a single out.
Afterwards, he went to Robin Ventura and trainer Herm Schneider and uttered the words no athlete ever wants to say:
“I can’t do it anymore.”
Jones had cost the White Sox one game, almost two.
“I gutted it out as long as I could and realized I was to the point of hurting the team instead of helping,” Jones said.
It turns out that White Sox right-hander had suffered a back injury that was causing the pain in his hip. He would undergo a discectomy procedure on his back, which involved shaving part of the disk material that was pressing on a nerve.
However, this injury ended up being a minor detour. What came next sent Jones’ recovery off a cliff.
While ramping up his throwing program in July, Jones started feeling a burning sensation in his right forearm. He didn’t think it was serious.
He was in for a heartbreaking surprise.
After having an MRI, Jones met with White Sox team doctor Charles Bush-Joseph at U-S Cellular Field. There, Jones was given the shocking news: He tore an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.
“Are you sure?” he asked the doctor.
Bush-Joseph took out the MRI and showed Jones the tear in his elbow.
“I was crushed,” he said.
But Jones composed himself, went to general manager Rick Hahn, and actually apologized to Hahn for getting hurt.
“It was my arm, so I figured it was my fault,” Jones said. “I wanted to be there for the team.”
For the next 12 months, there would be no team for Jones. He was on an island by himself, starting at ground zero.
Was he worried that he might never be the pitcher he used to be?
Was he afraid that he might have pitched his last major league game?
It was a brutal reality for someone whose job in life is to pitch. Coming to grips with that in the beginning was the worst part.
“Because they took away something that you've done every day of your life just about, and that's throw a baseball,” Jones said. “So for the first four or five months where I couldn’t throw at all, that was pretty tough mentally to get through it.”
But this past June came the first big breakthrough.
While throwing a simulated game at the White Sox spring training facility in Arizona, Jones could feel something in his arm — and he could see something in the hitters’ faces.
“I started to see their reaction [to my pitches],” he said with a smile. “And they got the radar gun out to see where it was at.”
His fastballs had clocked in at 98, 99, and 100.
“So I said, ‘Alright, I can do this. This is going to happen. I can get back to where I was.’”
And Sunday, there was Jones entering the game in relief of Chris Sale in front of a packed house at U.S. Cellular Field.
“It was the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of,” he said.
Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan all came to the plate. Jones struck all of them out.
Catcher Tyler Flowers has had the best view of Jones’ pitches, and he thinks he might actually be better than he was before.
“The guy is throwing sliders 92, 93 [miles per hour]. That’s the best I’ve seen out of him,” Flowers said. “He even threw a little curveball at 83, a little 12-to-6. That’s another weapon we can use later on.”
Since being back with the White Sox, Jones has given up just one hit in 4.1 innings with seven strikeouts and no walks. He’s impressed everybody in the clubhouse, including the star of Sunday’s victory.
“I love watching him pitch. I’ve said that for a while now,” Chris Sale said about Jones. “Seeing the obstacles he’s had to come over and the way he has handled it the whole time, he has never deviated from the script. He put his head down and he worked hard. What he’s gone through, a lot of people could get down. But it’s fun watching him pitch. You appreciate it a little bit more when it comes from him because of what he’s done and how he’s done it.”
If there’s a player in the major leagues who’s soaking in the moment more than Nate Jones right now, I’d like to meet him. Although I doubt that person exists.
Two surgeries, out for 16 months, and now he’s back.
“It makes me feel a sense of accomplishment," he said. "After all I went through, the surgeries, the rehabs, the bullpens. Looking back, it was all worth it.”