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How Zack Greinke changed his approach to protect his elbow

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers
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May 10, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke (21) pitches the seventh inning against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. (Gary Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

LOS ANGELES – Own something long enough and it comes back into style, and so Randy Wolf, at 37 years old, returned to the major leagues Wednesday wearing his Tommy John scar from 2005, accessorized with his new one from 2012.

Having lost the young Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery, the Miami Marlins signed the veteran Wolf, who has endured two, the new way of the game – the recovered replace the afflicted – in what Wolf called, "the year of the ulnar collateral ligament."

Fernandez made it 34 major- and minor-leaguers known to have undergone the ligament replacement surgery since mid-February, and Texas' Martin Perez could make it 35, and Wolf knows the angst better than most, yet is equally mystified by the sudden anatomical pile-up.

"So many different things," he said. "But I'm always skeptical of people who say they have an answer."

There is, to him, not a single precise reason for them all, but some inexact reason for each, which doesn't push the conversation ahead much and won't save the next guy from the scalpel. Wolf knows the route that lay ahead, however, like hundreds of others with him and more by the week. He's got the scar to show for it, the scar that says he's been there once (at least) and yet does not come with the insight for why. Or, why not.

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Randy Wolf has had two Tommy John procedures. (AP)

"I think everybody's heart is in the right place," he said, which was more than he could say for everybody's UCL.

Before he'd thrown a pitch for the Marlins, Wolf had pitched more than 2,600 professional innings for seven organizations. Still, he wasn't going to be done until he'd attempted one more return. He wasn't leaving in a sling. And so here he is, available for the moment out of manager Mike Redmond's bullpen, presumably with at least a start or two in his future, with another new elbow.

"I didn't want to have any regrets," he said.

In the clubhouse across the way, Zack Greinke has pitched past 2,000 innings. His pitching arm bears no scars. He, too, stands fairly firmly against regrets. Several years ago, when it was still his best pitch, Greinke simply stopped throwing his slider so much. He'd leaned heavily on the slider, even won a Cy Young Award riding it and his fastball, and then he'd go to bed with his elbow feeling somewhat "different," he said, or wake up the next morning that way, and one day decided this wasn't the best way to a long and successful career.

Greinke, being Greinke, was perhaps just self-aware enough to change. He still throws plenty of sliders, but hopes to cap them at 15, maybe 20, per start, thereby balancing his desire to win with the hope to pitch again in five days. Perhaps the ulnar collateral ligament goes a thread at a time, he doesn't really know, but if so, he was going to budget his threads, and not pitch straight through his elbow by the time he was 30 and then be no good to himself or his team for a year.

He finds other ways, and reaches for the slider when the at-bat requires it. And, actually, he admitted, if it's one of those games, when it's absolutely necessary, he'll choose the game over his elbow and throw more.

"In what I would deem a very important at-bat or a very important pitch, yes, I would throw the slider," he said. "But with the pitcher up and no one on, you might be able to strike him out on three pitches. Do you really want to throw three sliders to a pitcher? Is it really smart of me to expend full energy on a slider in that situation?"

On Saturday, the Giants loaded the bases with two out in the first inning.

"If it takes eight sliders to get that guy out," Greinke said, "I'm going to throw eight sliders."

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Zack Greinke is 6-1 with a 2.38 ERA this season. (AP)

Greinke spoke of this in a week that has seen Angels starter Jered Weaver ask out of a game because of fatigue and Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon decline to pitch in three consecutive games. Maybe some of the answer to the Tommy John scourge is pitchers being more honest, in the moment, about what their bodies are capable of. Maybe there'd be fewer scars that way. Greinke, Weaver and Papelbon have been around long enough, so in some ways they make their own rules. The young pitchers? Fernandez? Matt Harvey? Patrick Corbin? They're pitching to win games, of course, but also to establish themselves, to reach their arbitration years with commanding numbers, to hit free agency with a resume. Some are pitching to escape the minor leagues. Is there not a reason so many of the recent Tommy John victims are 25 or younger? Could it be the effort required from immature bodies to throw a fastball 97 mph? To throw a slider 89?

Nate Eovaldi, the Marlins' 24-year-old right-hander who is among the hardest-throwing pitchers in the league, said he throws every pitch as hard as he can. Eovaldi had Tommy John surgery when he was 17. Clayton Kershaw, who is 26, said the same. He's never had arm problems.

"It's tough to describe," Greinke said. "Some pitchers say they throw 100 percent every pitch every game their whole career. I don't do that. I don't think I physically could. I pick my times.

"You throw 100 percent of being in control. Or, like, 98 percent of being in control."

Same for Wolf.

"I don't think I've thrown my pitches 100 percent for a long time," he said.

So, there you go. No answers. Just casualties, a few scars and, around this time next year, a lot of comebacks.

"It's about hope," Wolf said. "It's not the end of the world."

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