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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s just a grind’: Andrew Kittredge, Ferris graduate and Tampa Bay reliever, worked his way back from Tommy John surgery after all-star season in 2021

Tampa Bay’s Andrew Kittredge pitches during the ninth inning Tuesday against the Texas Rangers during the opener of an American League wild-card series at Tropicana Field St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Getty Images)
By Ed Klajman For The Spokesman-Review

TORONTO – It was the highlight of Andrew Kittredge’s career.

Coming off a brilliant first half of the 2021 season for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Ferris High School grad took the mound in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game – pitching a 1-2-3 inning.

One year later, he was experiencing his low point, just a couple of weeks into a 14-month recovery process after having Tommy John surgery, in which his elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) had been reconstructed, an internal brace inserted, and a few bone chips removed.

Kittredge returned this season and appeared in 14 regular-season games. He also pitched a scoreless ninth inning in the Rays’ 4-0 loss to the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the American League wild-card series Tuesday.

“Initially, when the injury actually started to happen, we didn’t really think that’s what it was, because we got the MRI, and I had a previous partial tear of my elbow, so it looked kind of the same,” Kittredge, 33, said while in Toronto last weekend to close out the regular season, six weeks after he finally returned to the active roster. “I went on the IL, and then came back, pitched in two more games, and at that point I could just tell. I didn’t have the pop. It didn’t completely tear, but I just lost my range of motion. I couldn’t bend or extend my arm. It was clear that something was wrong.”

Before Kittredge knew it, renowned expert Keith Meister was performing surgery on him, and rehab was underway, bringing an early end to his 2022 season and having to face the daunting reality that he would miss most of 2023 .

But true to his nature, the relief pitcher his teammates call “Kitt” stayed optimistic, taking the same diligent, professional and patient approach to his recovery as he did to a career that saw him make the big leagues in 2017, nine long years after being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 45th round.

He made a strong impression on Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash during his time on the injured list.

“You always have the concern of how the player is going to be able to respond throughout the rehab,” said Cash, who has taken Tampa Bay to the postseason five straight years. “It’s a grueling process. Kitt probably has the best mindset of any pitcher that we have. He’s just so level. And he was throughout his rehab. He worked really, really hard.”

Kittredge described his rehab as a roller-coaster ride, full of ups and downs.

“It’s just a grind. It’s long. It starts to wear on you,” the 6-foot-1, 230-pound right-hander said. “And there are times when you feel like you could help the team out so much, but you just know you physically can’t. I think that was the hardest part.”

He added it was stressful to know that even after all the rehab, there was no way to know if his arm would deliver his powerful mid-90s fastballs – not to mention his slider and change-up – in the same way .

A sense of relief came after his minor league outings went well. Kittredge took another big step forward when he picked up a save and a win in his first two appearances with the Rays in mid-August.

In Toronto, tuning up for what he hopes will be a long Rays playoff run , Kittredge appeared in games Saturday and Sunday, pitching two full innings and only allowing one baserunner.

But even with that – and having pitched in 181 regular-season games in his career, with an 18-7 won-loss record, 3.65 ERA and 206 strikeouts – his manager is not about to put any burdensome pressure on his bullpen veteran for the postseason.

Cash emphasized how there’s “an expectation put unfairly” on any pitcher coming back from surgery.

“We knew when he came back, he was not going to be the All-Star ‘Kitt.’ Cash said. “That’s not fair to him. He’s got to get his reps in. He has made progress, I think, every outing. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he will get back to that form. He’s already made strides to where he’s close.”

Kittredge agrees.

“I’m very pleased with how my arm came back. I feel great. My arm health, I’ve never felt healthier, I mean, I feel just as good as I did before the injury, honestly.”

Kittredge has six siblings, who all live in Spokane, where Andrew also spends all of his offseason with his wife and son.

“I just want to be the kind of caliber pitcher that can be that same guy I was before,” Kittredge said. “It takes a lot of luck and almost a perfect storm to be an All-Star. What the stats say, that is what it is. I just want to go out and trust my stuff and, hopefully, help the team.”