Playing catch is such a mundane part of the sport, same as taking batting practice or singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But for players recovering from Tommy John surgery — a procedure that repairs the ulnar collateral ligament in their elbows — playing catch for the first time is a crucial moment. After a couple shaky throws to Kotredes, the next 23 or so felt pretty normal for Cavalli.
And pretty normal felt pretty damn good.
“I miss baseball a ton,” Cavalli said of what he has learned about himself since tearing his UCL in March. At the start of a five-minute conversation with reporters Tuesday, he threw out “sometime” in June 2024 as a potential return date. The Nationals still consider him one of their top prospects, a right-handed starter they could build future rotations around. But in the meantime, he will take Wednesday off from throwing before playing catch again Thursday.
“When I threw it, it was very emotional,” Cavalli, 25, continued. “… When that ball came out I was like, ‘Dang, I really missed this.’ It just gives you that fire to be able to get back and go compete at something you love.”
Cavalli is far from the only Nationals pitcher, past or present, to have his UCL repaired. Jake Irvin, a 26-year-old righty for Washington, perhaps the rotation’s brightest spot in 2023, was among those well aware of what Tuesday meant to Cavalli. The pair played together at the University of Oklahoma in 2018, two years before Irvin underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. So after Cavalli played catch and spoke with reporters, Irvin stopped by Cavalli’s locker — just a few down from his — and congratulated him on the step.
“Seriously, it’s a big day, man,” Irvin said after the two hugged.
“Yeah, I know,” Cavalli answered.
“You get someone to videotape it?” Irvin asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I did,” Cavalli said, cracking a small smile. “I made sure to.”
The Nationals have used eight starters this season, five of them 26 or younger. Jackson Rutledge, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, yielded two runs in 6⅓ innings in his home debut Tuesday night. Josiah Gray, acquired in the Trea Turner-Max Scherzer trade in 2021, was Washington’s lone all-star in July and is working through a rocky second half. MacKenzie Gore, acquired in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell trade last summer, is probably done for the season because of a blister and his high innings count, finishing with a 4.42 ERA in 27 starts. And then there’s Irvin, who has a 3.30 ERA in August and September.
Cavalli, in theory, fits right in the middle of this group. But before he can be penciled in again, the next phases of his rehab have to go as well as the first six months.
“I talked to him afterward and the first couple throws felt like he had never thrown before, which we knew would happen,” Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday. “But he’s happy. We’re happy that he’s heading in the right direction.”