New Mariners addition Ken Giles, recovering from TJ surgery, has made it through tough times before
The story will always follow him, and he is OK with that. It is a part of him, a part of his past. Something he has moved beyond, and he believes he has become a better person thanks to what came next.
Ultimately, it might have been the self-inflicted jolt that new Mariners reliever Ken Giles needed to get to the better place he is now, both on and off the field.
“I laugh at myself,” Giles said of the incident that took place May 1, 2018 after giving up a three-run bomb to Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez in the ninth inning of what was a scoreless game when he entered it for the Astros just four batters earlier. “Everyone makes jokes about it, I make jokes myself. Maybe I had to just get the negative energy out of myself. I don’t know. That’s how my body responded. That’s how low I was in my mental game. I was struggling. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was very hard on myself.”
“100 Miles Giles” was a nickname he was given early in his career for the fastball in the upper 90s and sometimes triple digits he threw, the stuff that put him in position to be trusted with W’s at the end of games. It takes a certain mentality to take on that level of responsibility, one person holding all the cards in what to that point is a team game. End of game, ball in hand, win or lose on what he did. It was all him and as such, he put his fate in the hands of the person he trusted the most when it came to baseball. A “lone wolf” was how he often characterized himself in interviews.
“I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to stick to what I wanted to do and not really hear any other input,” he said. “If it didn’t benefit me I wasn’t going to take it in stride.”
Yet there he was on that day almost three years ago, having delivered a right hook to his own face coming off a streak of eight scoreless outings where he surrendered just one hit.
Tough outing, yes, but the Astros would surely recover from a May 1 loss. Giles was struggling, though, perhaps bearing scars from the 2017 postseason where he amassed an 11.74 ERA over three appearances. Fortunately, his agent put him in touch with someone in mid-2018 that he could talk with, and Giles was ready for the help.
“I wanted to be someone more reliable,” he said. “I wanted to be someone more open not just with my teammates but the coaching staff and medical staff. I wanted to be vocal. Back then that wasn’t really me. Now that I am more of an open book, I love to pass down information. I think that’s what really helped me take the next step in my career and I am really looking forward to making my mental game even stronger.”
Also of help, a change of scenery. In a rare closer-for-closer trade, Giles was dealt to the Blue Jays by Houston for Roberto Osuna on July 30, 2018. New eyes, new place, new teammates, new outlook and the ongoing mental training are all things he credits with the turnaround he made in 2019, making 23 saves in 24 opportunities while posting a 1.87 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 53 innings.
“I was a guy who was in need of a different situation,” he said. “When I was given that opportunity in Toronto, they helped me with open arms and I am very thankful for all of Canada and the Toronto organization for giving me that opportunity. I surely took every chance they gave me and just being around a great group of guys and great talent coming up, I just had fun. That’s all I worried about was just enjoying my time in the big leagues. Baseball is not forever and I just wanted to take the time to enjoy it.”
The fun came to an end Sept. 15, 2020. Already having been shut down for the majority of the shortened season, Giles felt pinching in his right elbow. MRIs throughout his shutdown were clean but something was clearly wrong. The ulnar collateral ligament had been slowing deteriorating. The decision was made to have Tommy John surgery that would keep him out for a season. Despite not being able to pitch for at least a year, Giles drew interest as a free agent from the Mariners and other clubs willing to take a gamble on him returning to pre-surgery form in 2022.
For Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, it was a risk he had taken with a number of pitchers, including Marco Gonzales and Taijuan Walker, and one he has became more comfortable with in time.
“In 2010, I believe our team doctor told me the average rate of full recovery was roughly 86 percent at that time,” Dipoto remembered, adding that he thinks the success rate is even higher now due to advances in the surgery itself as well as rehab programs. “It’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about it, 25 years ago it was not a sneeze to have Tommy John surgery, and I don’t want to downsell or diminish the percentage chance that it doesn’t work out because there is a chance it doesn’t, but in Ken’s case we feel very certain pitchers tend to bounce back from this and when they do come back they come back at full strength. That’s the gamble.”
Dipoto believes that Giles rehabbing with a team rather than on his own in hopes of landing a “prove it” contract in 2021 will be beneficial for the 30-year-old right-hander, which is perhaps unseen value in the first year of the Mariners’ two-year deal with an option for a third.
“We feel that the talent that Ken brings to the table is special enough to merit carrying him on the roster this year and helping him through the rehab process and making him feel like a part of our team and what we are doing moving forward,” Dipoto said. “That really matters, just to give him that feeling of belonging. I’ve been through rehab and it’s a lot easier to do with a club and the belief you are working to get to something greater other than that just that healthy day because it’s a lonely time.”
The move made sense on many levels for Giles, who lives with his wife and two sons in Peoria, Ariz., where he will spend most of the season rehabbing at the Mariners’ spring training complex. Then there was the homework he did, talking to other players who talked up the organization and city of Seattle, including Taijuan Walker, who he was teammates with last season with the Blue Jays.
“Just looking at what this organization is going towards, we have a great group of guys,” said Giles. “I’ve looked into them, I’ve asked other past players what they thought of the organization and players, they said nothing but great things, and the players were just top-notch talent, ready to compete, ready to be hungry, ready to take their skills to the next level.”
Giles looks forward to the day that he can take the ball for the Mariners on the field and pass along some of his experience and life lessons off the field. Until then, his job is recovery and rehab, away from the team. A situation as Dipoto said has its own challenges, but one that Giles embraces.
“I’ve gone through tough times mentally,” Giles said. “I turned it around, focused a lot on my mentality. If you don’t have the mentality part of the game down, it’s going to be a roller coaster. Once you get the mentality down and figure out who you are as a person, everything kind of falls into place when it comes to baseball. For me, it was a lot of soul searching, figuring out who I really was, trying to find myself. I take a lot of pride and joy in my mental side of the game I think because I went through that. I was able to reconcile through this surgery knowing that I am a stronger person but mentally I can probably get through anything honestly.”
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