LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It was early December, and Jair Jurrjens wondered if his balky knee would hold up and whether he’d be traded. Fellow Braves pitcher Tim Hudson wondered which would feel normal again — his back or his stomach.
A surgeon went through Hudson’s abdomen to perform lumbar spine fusion Nov. 28.
Two and a half months later, Braves pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Sunday. Jurrjens and Hudson reported in good spirits and varying degrees of recovery.
After Jurrjens was diagnosed with a toe condition and fitted for orthotics for his shoes in December, he said his right knee improved steadily and he was encouraged and optimistic about the upcoming season.
“The first couple of months of rehab after the season, I was working out but wasn’t [progressing],” the right-hander said. “When I got that balance, I could see the improvement… If you would have asked me two months ago, I’d be nervous. But since I put [orthotics] in, I was able to start squatting, start running a little bit. Everything’s started clicking.”
Hudson will be on the disabled list when the season begins, but said his back feels better than it had for 7-8 years prior to surgery. He doesn’t have a strict timetable for recovery but might be ready sometime between late April and early May.
Once he returns, he could be back for the long haul – perhaps a few years longer than envisioned before surgery fused his L5 and S1 vertebrae.
“Honestly, I didn’t really think back surgery was something I would do during my career,” said Hudson, 36, who had pitched with a degenerative disc and worsening pain for several years, but hoped to avoid surgery at least until after he retired.
When he couldn’t bend to take off his shoes and could barely get out of bed two months after the season, Hudson said he knew it was time to reassess and have his back examined again. Surgery was recommended.
“Now that I’ve had it and I feel really good about it, I feel like I can play a long time,” he said. “ That [chronic pain] was going to be a reason why I was going to probably take it to the house [retire after his contract]…. But after getting it fixed, feeling the relief that I have just from 2-1/2 months [since surgery], it feels a thousand times better. If I want to play two, three or four more years, I feel comfortable that I can do it.”
Hudson was cleared to begin light throwing Feb. 10. He could be given the green light to throw off the mound in mid-March, but will first have more X-rays in about two weeks to make sure the fused area has continued to strengthen.
Jurrjens has no restrictions when Braves pitchers and catchers begin workouts Monday. The first full-squad workout is Saturday, but most position players have already reported and say the team’s September collapse lit a fire beneath everyone.
Jurrjens did not pitch in September, the second straight year he was sidelined by a right-knee injury during the playoff stretch drive. The Braves lost 20 of their last 30 games and missed the postseason.
“A lot of people ask me back home [in Curacao] what’s my goal for this season,” he said. “I just want to finish the season. Get that [monkey] off my back.”
As for the trade rumors that swirled around him for much of the offseason, Jurrjens said he wasn’t angry, but acknowledged being a bit stressed out.
“When your family or friends are calling you, asking you what’s going on…” said Jurrjens, who came to Atlanta in a trade from Detroit four years ago. “You know, that’s part of the business. It really didn’t bug me. Only thing that stresses you out is hearing all these rumors, you just want to know where you’re going to go. That’s it. See whether you’re going to stay or not.
“I was nervous when the rumors started – like, trying to take a nap was difficult because every time the phone rang you want to see if somebody’s calling to say you got traded.”
And now that he’s back?
“I’m cool,” he said. “I’m happy to be back with my teammates. When you get traded it’s hard, you need to learn new rules, new teammates … it’s easier when you’re with a team you know already. More relaxed.”
Jurrjens was asked if he was excited about the starting rotation and the team’s chances.
“Yeah,” he said. “If we all stay healthy, we’re going to keep the team in the race. Every team is going to have injuries, you just hope it’s short one and the guy can come back. Try to limit the injuries and I think we have a good chance.”
Hudson doesn’t feel pressured to rush his recovery because the Braves have talented young pitchers who can fill in. Prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado were to compete with Mike Minor for one rotation spot, but it looks like two could be in the opening day rotation in Hudson’s absence.
Hudson only named one young pitcher by name, and it wasn’t one of the top prospects. He nodded across the clubhouse to Kris Medlen and said the versatile starter-reliever was as good as anyone the Braves had.
By the way Dr. Steven Wray did the fusion surgery on Hudson, and Hudson made sure that Wray, an Auburn alum, remembered who else attended the university.
“I gave him a ‘War Eagle!’ when I was on the table before I went under,” Hudson said, smiling. “Oh, yeah. I said, ‘Take care of me. War Eagle, bro.’”
Wray is the same specialist who did fusion surgery on reliever Darren Holmes a decade ago, before Holmes posted a 1.81 ERA in 55 appearances for Atlanta in a career-best 2002 season at age 36.