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Walker Buehler eyeing September return from Tommy John surgery

Dave Roberts: “That’s embedded in Walker, the confidence, so that’s not surprising.”

Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Washington Nationals 7-1 during a MLB baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler threw what he called a standing bullpen session on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, the latest step in a long process of recovery from his second Tommy John surgery. Though if Buehler has his druthers, the rehab won’t necessarily be all that long.

“September 1 is still the goal for me. I want to come up at a certain pitch count and things like that,” Buehler said Tuesday. “We’re two-thirds of the way, I guess.”

Using Jon Roegele’s Tommy John surgery database, the only major or minor league players to return from a 2022 reconstructive elbow surgery by this year so far are all position players, including Bryce Harper and Dodgers minor leaguer Jahmai Jones, currently in Triple-A. A handful of minor league pitchers had Tommy John surgery in 2021 and returned within 12 months, but usually the recovery time is much longer.

“That’s embedded in Walker, the confidence, so that’s not surprising,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think September 1 is pretty aggressive. I think today was a good day. We’ll see how Walker progresses.

“It’s hard to bet against this guy, but 9/1 is not what I was hearing. I’m happy he feels that way, that’s a good thing.”

Buehler had his first Tommy John surgery on August 5, 2015, two months after the Dodgers drafted him in the first round out of Vanderbilt. He made his professional debut 11 months later with two scoreless innings in then-Low-A Great Lakes, one of three short appearances in 2016. So he has some experience.

Buehler also explained the difference in his two surgeries.

“I think one weird thing about my surgery was it wasn’t necessarily another tear. I had a kind of a piece of bone from an old injury that broke off and went into my ligament. So they had to cut that out, but nothing tore. It wasn’t like I threw in it ripped out,” Buehler explained. “was a full Tommy John, it was reconstruction is medically what they would say, but I don’t think it technically was as detrimental to the long term health of my elbow.

“I guess it’s kind of reflected in the fact that most Tommy Johns are 14-18 month rehabs for some guys,” he added, “I feel very comfortable trying to come back in 12 months and my second one. I guess the stuff behind the scenes, or the way it’s been explained to me, kind of gives me some comfort in trying to do that.”

The “standing bullpen” as he called it was Buehler throwing off a mound, but to a catcher standing up. He’ll probably start throwing downhill to a crouching catcher in about three weeks.

While starting in September is a goal, Buehler also has long-term plans as well.

“Rehab is probably the most selfish time you’re ever gonna have. So for me, it’s plotting the timeline that is gonna put me in the best position to to contribute when I’m back,” he said. “Hopefully it all aligns, everything works its magic, and I get to play at the end of the year. But I also have to try and look out for myself and and the team here.

“The biggest thing is I want to be back healthy all of next year. This year there’s definitely some exciting parts of playing at the end of this year and something I really want to do. But if I’m not good enough or not healthy enough, I don’t think we’re going to try and jam a square peg into a round hole.”

Perhaps a more realistic goal for Buehler to return in 2023, considering how late in the season he’s planning to return, would be to pitch in relief for a month or so, then come back as a full-time starter in 2024. But for now, the bullpen is not in Buehler’s plans.

“Obviously we have a lot of talented players and a really good team. I’m going to try and contribute in any way I can,” Buehler said “For me, being a starting pitcher is my goal, and the way I think I can provide the most value. Hopefully everything is good and my stuff’s good, I can get people out again, and hopefully I can make some starts.

“I’ve always been a guy that takes the ball whenever and however I can. I think, if something says I need to try and be a reliever, then I will. But for now, there’s nothing saying that.”