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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets' Chris Young, Johan Santana: Shoulder surgery success stories

New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana delivers

New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana delivers in the first inning. (June 14, 2012) Credit: AP




CHRIS YOUNG: 383 days

That dwindling number above represents the length of time between surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule and the pitcher's next major-league start. What once was believed to be a career-threatening procedure is now regarded with increased optimism, based on the recent progress of these three pitchers and their successful rehabilitation process.

Wang's procedure was handled by the Birmingham-based Dr. James Andrews, one of the orthopedic giants. Dr. David Altchek, perhaps the premier shoulder specialist and based at Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery, performed the operations for the two Mets.

Every case is different, obviously. But what struck Young about his experience was Altchek's strong conviction going in. While many doctors will hedge on results, allowing for unforeseen developments, Altchek did not couch his prediction to Young.

"He basically said, 'Look, if you could pitch with this the way you were pitching, I have complete confidence that you'll be pitching even better once it's fixed,' " Young said this past week. "As a patient, that's what you want to hear, and it was really the first doctor I had been in front of who gave me that sort of confidence.

"He said, 'I'm telling you for the sake of your career, much less the well-being of your life after baseball, it's important to have this done, and you're going to be back pitching in a year.' And he was right."

Altchek is the Mets' orthopedist, and as a result of that affiliation, a team spokesman said he was unavailable to talk about his two recent success stories. But the statistics speak for themselves.

Santana is 4-3 with a 3.23 ERA and two complete games, including the first no-hitter in the 51-year history of the Mets. His strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio of 9.1 is his highest since his career-best 9.7 with the Twins in 2007.

Young has only two starts under his belt, but he earned his first victory Tuesday by pushing two outs deep into the sixth inning and throwing 106 pitches.

Young, 33, feels better than he has in recent memory. Altchek told him he probably had been pitching with the unstable shoulder for at least a year.

Before consenting to the full capsule repair, Young said he tried "alternative treatments" like PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections to help the recovery process for the shoulder, but that turned out to be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a major issue.

"It had scarred over a little bit, but the scar tissue wasn't substantial enough," Young said. "It wasn't structurally stable enough to hold the tissue together, so I had this superficial sort of healing that took place that was allowing me to pitch, but it wasn't foolproof, and eventually it reached a threshold that it couldn't take any more."

The last time Young saw Altchek, the doctor told him, "That thing is anchored in there hard now. It's solid and it's going to hold up."

Hearing that gives a pitcher one fewer thing to worry about on the mound -- and in the four days between starts.

Despite the strides of Wang, Santana and Young, it's still too early to determine if these are isolated cases or the start of a positive trend. Take Mark Prior, for instance. He won 18 games and struck out 245 for the 2003 Cubs but never came close to matching that dominant season before needing a shoulder capsule repair in 2007. He hasn't pitched in the majors since.

"I don't think a pattern has really developed yet," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "While there may be some guidelines that are developing, I'm not sure there's enough data to really know whether there's a higher probability of success today than there ever has been."

Said Young: "Who knows? Time will tell. Tommy John was an experiment when that happened, and now it's commonplace in baseball."


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