Solis finds mound success in AFL
In November 2011, Sammy Solis was wrapping up a second successful season in the Arizona Fall League.
The previous season, he had been the winning pitcher as the Scottsdale Scorpions captured the AFL championship.
Solis, a 2007 graduate of Agua Fria High School, was in the final inning of his next-to-last scheduled AFL start on that fateful day in November 2011 when he felt a pain in his left (pitching) elbow. It was a ligament that required Tommy John surgery.
“It was my second-to-last start before the offseason,” Solis said. “I was almost there. I don’t remember what inning it was but I remember feeling tearing.
“It was a big pull. Honestly, I knew [I was injured] … but I stayed in the game. I threw five pitches after it had blown out just because I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. I didn’t want the trainer coming out to the mound in mid-inning. So, I threw. I dropped about 15 miles per hour on one pitch. I got the guy to roll into a double play and that was it. It was pretty painful the whole time.”
Solis underwent Tommy John surgery on March 6, 2012. It was performed by Dr. Lewis Yocum, who had also performed the same procedure on Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
The surgery and recovery sidelined Solis for the entire 2012 campaign and until mid-May 2013 as the Washington Nationals, the team that drafted Solis in the second round of the 2010 draft, took a cautious approach to his recovery from surgery.
“It was actually all part of the plan,” Solis said of his late start to the season. “They wanted to hold me through just to get a few more innings. They didn’t want to throw me into the fire right away at the beginning of the season. Up north it is cold, so they didn’t want me throwing in 30 degrees.
Following a stay in extended spring training, Solis made one start for the Nationals’ affiliate in the Gulf Coast League before being promoted to Potomac of the Class A+ Carolina League. He posted a 2-1 record with a 3.32 earned run average. He allowed 58 hits, struck out 40 and walked 19 in 57 2/3 innings.
Solis has bounced back to his pre-surgery level on the mound. His velocity is close to where it was before the injury.
“I’ve been 2, to 3 up to 4 [mph],” Solis said. “I’ve touched 5 at times. It’s coming back. I think two years is really the time you start to throw harder and get back into form.”
“They were very pleased, especially because my velo[city] came back and that’s what they are most concerned about. The feel comes, whether it’s two or three years down the road, but it will come. But the velocity, you want to know the surgery was successful bringing your arm back, and it definitely was.”
While his velocity has returned, regaining his feel for pitches and commanding them proved most difficult.
“The feel is the hardest thing,” Solis said. “My velo[city] came back pretty quick. I was touching 5 in the middle of the season, so it wasn’t that. It was just finding that extension, getting the ball out front. It’s tough, especially when you are so tight. In between every inning I’m there stretching out. It’s coming around.”
Assigned to AFL
Seeing limited mound time during the regular season, Solis was assigned to the Arizona Fall League for the third time.
Solis got off to a great start for the AFL’s Mesa Solar Sox, winning four of his first six starts. In 24 innings, Solis fashioned an outstanding 2.25 ERA, giving up 26 hits while striking out 25 and walking only seven. The four wins and 25 strikeouts were tied for the league lead heading into the final two games of the season.
Solis was scheduled to make his final start in Thursday’s regular-season finale at Camelback Ranch against the Glendale Desert Dogs. However, if Mesa had clinched the East Division championship (the Solar Sox held a half-game lead over the Salt River Rafters with two games to play), Solis may be held out in order to start Saturday’s championship game against Surprise Saturday at Scottsdale Stadium.
“He’s been outstanding,” said Mike Maroth of the Detroit Tigers’ organization, one of Mesa’s two pitching coaches. “I mean, he’s gone out there. I like the way he attacks hitters. Right from the beginning he’s started pretty much every game and he’s gone right after the first hitter and from that point he just continues to go after a hitter as they step in there. So, he has done a great job of that; good tempo. He throws three pitches he can get a hitter out with. They are all effective. He has done a great job. I have just sat back and enjoyed watching him pitch.”
One of the things Solis worked on when he pitched in the AFL in 2011 was improving his curveball.
The extra strain on the elbow from throwing the curveball has not posed a problem, Solis said.
“I haven’t had any problems with the curve, no pain,” he said. “I’ve had problems finding it. The feel for the pitch is the last thing to come apparently. It’s taken awhile but out here it is coming around. That’s actually been my best pitch out here.”
“All his pitches are on right now,” Maroth said. “He has been very consistent. When we do our side work between starts, they have been outstanding, too. So, he’s feeling really good, his delivery is great, his timing, everything is right where it needs to be.”
While Solis’ velocity is down slightly since the surgery, he has found that to be advantageous.
“I was throwing my hardest right before I blew my arm out,” Solis said. “I was pitching well but the movement kind of disappeared a little bit. So it’s not that I’ve dialed it back, it’s just that I’ve found that being more of a pitcher than a thrower is much more effective. So I use my movement much more than I used to.”
Stamina has not been a problem, said Solis, who has been limited to five innings per appearance in the AFL.
Maroth has not noticed any stamina issues with Solis.
“In [a recent] outing, he didn’t have his best stuff in the first two innings but he got better in his last three,” Maroth said. “There haven’t been any signs of slowing down throughout the game. He continues to do exactly as he has done in the first few innings and be able to hold his velocity and stamina. So, everything has been great.”
With surgery and rehab behind him and having regained his former level of success on the mound, Solis is upbeat about the future, but he admitted that he had some doubts following the injury.
“I think everyone gets discouraged,” Solis said of those who have undergone Tommy John surgery. “You hit bumps in the road for sure, especially in mid-season when I got shut down for a week-and-a-half, two weeks because I had a little biceps tendonitis that flared up, but it’s all part of the program. Thankfully, we have had a lot of guys in the organization that have had Tommy John, so I had a lot of guys to go off and talk to. That helped me get through it.”
Solis is hoping that his success in the AFL continues since this is an important offseason for him. His future with the Nationals could be riding on it.
“This is my protection year, my Rule 5 year, so that’s Nov. 20 when they set the 40-man roster,” Solis said.
If he is not placed on the 40-man roster, the Nationals will have to expose Solis to the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12 and he can be drafted by another major league team.
“I’m just trying to come out here and do my job, pitch well,” Solis said.
He has succeeded.
Mike Russo can be reached by email at email@example.com.