GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ross Stripling stood in the Dodgers' clubhouse at Camelback Ranch on Friday giving a demonstration to a group of reporters. His prized right elbow was dangling in the air with an imaginary baseball in his hand.
“They said it's really bad if I feel it here, in the back of my motion,” the 24-year-old pitcher said, holding the arm at a 90-degree angle.
“But I feel it more here with my curve and my cutter,” he continued, completing his throwing motion, his arm now in front of his body, “which is better than if I feel it back here.”
By Tuesday, Stripling was in Los Angeles meeting with team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Before they reviewed the results of a contrast MRI exam on Stripling's elbow, all they had was that little slice of hope hanging by the thread of an imaginary baseball. Then came the diagnosis: Stripling would undergo the ligament-replacement procedure known as Tommy John surgery. His season was effectively over.
One positive: Maybe his sad saga can serve as a cautionary tale against conventional wisdom.
It was conventional wisdom that carried Stripling through two innings of live batting practice on Feb. 21. He first remembered feeling something in his elbow late in the first inning, when he snapped off a cut fastball to Joc Pederson, then he pitched another. Afterward, Stripling didn't tell any Dodgers coaches, trainers, or teammates that he was in pain.
Five days later he made his Cactus League debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks, facing 12 batters in two innings. Still, he didn't report the injury.
“Then I tried to pick up a ball (Thursday) and just couldn't really throw it,” Stripling said.
Until then, Mattingly said, “we didn't hear a thing about it.”
By Tuesday, Mattingly had been informed that speaking up might not have made a difference — Stripling tore the ligament when he threw his first cut fastball in batting practice.
However, Stripling was able to pitch another inning of BP that day. Pitching against the Diamondbacks, he was able to strike out one major-league hitter (Tony Campana) and get a ground-ball double play out of another (Mike Jacobs). According to the in-house radar gun at Salt River Fields, Stripling was throwing in the low 90-mph range.
Even if Stripling was able to do all that with a torn UCL, his elbow certainly didn't get better over the past week. Now he has approximately 12-18 months — the typical recovery time after a Tommy John procedure — to wonder “what if.”
“That sucks,” Mattingly said of the diagnosis. “The kid was on a good roll.”
Stripling admitted Friday that he made a mistake by not reporting the injury sooner. But what about that conventional wisdom: What is it, and where did it come from?
The ethos of playing through injuries is powerful and pervasive among players in their first major-league camp. One rookie pitcher declined comment altogether when asked what he would do in Stripling's situation.
Jarret Martin, a left-hander in his first major-league camp was in a similar situation in June 2012. He was set to pitch one inning in the Midwest League All-Star Game, two days after his final start of the first half with the Single-A Great Lakes Loons.
After the all-star game, Martin had a burning sensation in his left shoulder below the armpit. He made the five-hour drive back from Geneva, Illinois to Midland, Michigan and didn't report the injury until after he'd thrown a few pitches.
Martin was ultimately diagnosed with a strained latissimus dorsi and tendinitis in his left biceps — the result of altering his mechanics to compensate for the lat injury, he believes. The 24-year-old didn't pitch another game until late August.
“If I have something nagging, I'm going to get it in an earlier stage,” he said. “I want to stay on the field. Coming down here to rehab, having this Arizona heat fry your brain — I was here in July, August — that's tough. That's really a test on your mind power, working through that.”
If he were in Stripling's position, would Martin have reported the elbow pain right away?
“That's a tough question,” he said. “If I felt it in BP, I'm going to finish BP. I'm going to 100 percent finish BP until I just can't. Then I'll play catch the next day. If it gets to the point where I know it's hurting — I kind of know when I'm not right because I start compensating — then I know I need to stop.”
Red Patterson and Seth Rosin, two right-handers in their first major-league camp with the Dodgers, said they would have reported the injury, too. Yet both pitchers said they understood Stripling's hesitation to speak up.
“You go from being a big guy over there (in minor-league camp) to here being a rookie,” Patterson said. “You're trying not only to impress the staff, the front office, you're trying to impress the teammates, the guys who have been around a few years.”
Patterson described the hesitation to report injuries as an “unwritten rule” among the rookies.
“I think rookies are the ones who say it amongst each other the most,” Stripling said. “Maybe they learned it from older guys. There's no hazing by any means.”
Stripling's career isn't over. There are many success stories of pitchers recovering from Tommy John procedures early in their careers to have success in the majors. Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson has had the procedure twice: first as a junior at Louisiana State University and again in 2012. He's saved 171 games over parts of eight seasons.
In an impressive 21-game debut at Double-A Chattanooga last year, Stripling went 6-4 with a 2.78 earned-run average. Sometime, probably next year, he'll get the opportunity to show why he was the 10th-ranked prospect in the Dodgers' organization by MLB.com.
In the meantime, a painful lesson lingers: It's better to speak up too soon than too late.
“It's one thing we talk about with young guys — it happens every spring,” Mattingly said. “You ask them to let somebody know, but they don't want to tell anybody because they want to compete.”
JP Hoornstra covers the Los Angeles Dodgers and Major League Baseball for Digital First Media at Los Angeles News Group. Follow him on Twitter @jphoornstra.