Two years (and broken ribs) later, Blake Treinen returns at key time for Dodgers bullpen

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, May 6, 2024 - Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Blake Treinen (49) pitches.

The comeback was supposed to have happened months ago.

By now, the Dodgers once hoped, Blake Treinen’s return would be old news.

Entering spring training, the shoulder injuries that sidelined Treinen much of the last two years finally seemed fixed. And even at 35 years old, the veteran reliever still flashed electric stuff seemingly capable of late-game dominance.

Then, in one unfortunate, unavoidable stroke, Treinen’s patience was tested anew. After suffering two fractured ribs in a spring training game, his return to the mound was delayed all over again.

On March 9, a line-drive comebacker drilled Treinen in the right side of his rib cage. He lost his breath and crumbled in pain. Initial medical scans showed an internal bruise, with bleeding in his lung. Then doctors subsequently diagnosed the pair of rib fractures, forcing Treinen to remain on the injured list until the club’s homestand this past week.

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“It was a long road,” manager Dave Roberts said, “in the sense of … feeling like you're making some headway, and then to have to regress.”

“Just one of those weird things you can’t explain,” Treinen added of his unforeseen detour. “You can get caught up in every little frustration.”

Now, however, with Treinen back at full health and finally on the active roster, the timing of his return feels somewhat serendipitous.

At the moment the Dodgers needed him most — amid a wave of other reliever injuries to Evan Phillips (hamstring), Brusdar Graterol (shoulder), Ryan Braiser (calf), Joe Kelly (shoulder) and Connor Brogdon (plantar fasciitis) — Treinen is being thrust back into the high-leverage situations he has long enjoyed best.

“Blake could close the game out today,” Roberts quipped ahead of Treinen’s season debut last Sunday.

Close. Treinen pitched a clean eighth inning with a three-run lead that day, then repeated the task the next night, registering a pair of late-game holds in his first major league action since the 2022 playoffs.

“Really good,” Roberts said of Treinen, who had a pair of strikeouts and retired all six batters he faced. “Anyone coming back from injury, you want to make sure you’re still able to compete at a high level, the level you expect to compete at. And he does a back-to-back. [Looked] very efficient. The stuff was teethy. He’s doing well.”

Treinen’s outlook seemed different a couple of months ago, when the line drive cracked his ribs.

Up to that point, the right-hander had looked sharp in spring camp. The shoulder injuries that limited him to five appearances in 2022, and that then required surgical repairs of his labrum and rotator cuff that cost him all of 2023, were finally healed. Back at long last were his mid-90s-mph fastball velocity and sweeping wipeout slider, the same pitches that keyed the former All-Star’s career resurgence with the Dodgers in 2021, when he posted a 1.99 ERA in 72 outings.

“His stuff is in a great place right now,” general manager Brandon Gomes said in March. “There are a lot of outcomes where he’s an elite pitcher, whether it’s the 2021 form or not.”

Then the comebacker threw an unexpected wrench into his recovery process — causing a new injury that took time to be accurately diagnosed.

The Dodgers' Blake Treinen is tended to by a trainer after being hit by a ball during a spring training game on March 9.
The Dodgers' Blake Treinen is tended to by a trainer after being hit by a ball in a spring training game on March 9. Initial scans showed an internal bruise, with bleeding in his lung. Then doctors subsequently diagnosed a pair of rib fractures, (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

In the days after getting hit, Treinen thought he had avoided anything serious. An X-ray and CT scan initially only showed bruising of his lung, an ailment that sounds bad but can be relatively minor. A successful bullpen session in the final days of camp kept him on track to pitch in South Korea, where Treinen accompanied the team for its international season-opening series.

“It was sore, but not painful,” Treinen said of his ribs at the time of the trip. “I was like, ‘I’m in a great place to either help in Korea or help on opening day.'”

Instead, upon arriving in Seoul, the pain in Treinen’s side only worsened.

The pitcher started to feel “locked up,” unable to get loose or throw with full intensity. He was quickly ruled out of the Korea games and scheduled for an MRI exam when the team returned home — one that ended up revealing fractures in the Nos. 5 and 6 ribs.

“It was frustrating,” Treinen said. “You don’t want to be on that roster, take a spot from somebody else. But I genuinely thought I was gonna be fine. I think we all did.”

“It’s really hard for my personality,” he added, “trying not to live that roller-coaster.”

Indeed, it was only the latest setback in Treinen’s path back to full health.

After initially getting hurt in April 2022, Treinen returned for four outings at the end of that season, including a postseason appearance in which he gave up a home run, before undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of that season.

After some early hope last season of a return in 2023, Treinen's recovery again was pushed back to 2024, after a brief minor league rehab stint was ended in August.

“I tried hard not to let my mind get there [with the frustration of the injuries],” said Treinen, who also faced potential free agency last winter with the Dodgers holding a club option in his contract.

“God’s got a plan, though," Treinen added. "As you move along [through your career], you don’t ride the wave as long. You just relax and let things be as they will. If God wants me to play baseball, I’ll keep playing baseball and doors will continue to open. If I’m supposed to move on, then doors will close.”

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In the end, the Dodgers kept Treinen’s door open, making the relatively easy decision to pick up his $1-million salary.

And now, they are happy to see him finally walking back through it, returning to health — and, they hope, form — at a time when their bullpen’s depth was in dire, desperate straits.

“I wasn’t really too concerned about the stuff,” Roberts said of Treinen, who along with Daniel Hudson, Alex Vesia and Michael Grove make up the back end of the Dodgers' current bullpen orientation.

“For me, it was hoping he could trust his stuff, whatever he had, in the strike zone; betting on the stuff to play and get major league hitters out," Roberts added. "And that’s what I’m seeing.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.