Minneapolis – He’s only 150 miles away, maybe a two and a half hour drive south from his home in Pequot Lakes, Minn. But, somehow, it feels like Blaine Hardy is a whole lot farther away from the Tigers.
“They’re playing really good baseball right now,” said Hardy, the Tigers veteran reliever who went on the injured list on Aug. 8. “They are kind of fun to watch, actually. That (Justin) Verlander game, my God, that got me excited.
“Of all the people to put a perfect game of defense together against and just enough offense after he absolutely dominated, and to end up winning it 2-1 – that was fun to watch.”
Hardy has been a mainstay in the Tigers' bullpen since 2014. But as he recovers from a Platelet-Rich Plasma injection in his left elbow, he’s wondering if he’s thrown his last pitch for the Tigers.
“You know and I know I might not be in Lakeland next year,” he said.
He made $1.3 million this year and is eligible for arbitration this offseason. There is precedent for the Tigers not bringing him back. Last offseason they opted not to tender contracts to veterans James McCann and Alex Wilson, who were in similar positions.
“I don’t think I burned any bridges,” Hardy said. “It’s frustrating the way it went down, but I’ve always been one where if I can pitch, I will pitch.”
Hardy had pitched all season with elbow discomfort. It limited him, essentially, to one-inning outings. After his last outing, Aug. 7, he was called into manager Ron Gardenhire’s office and told he was being optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
Hardy initially accepted, but after talking to his agent, he realized using up his last minor-league option could be detrimental to finding a job in 2020. Within his 72-hour window to report to Toledo, he sought a second medical opinion on his elbow.
What Dr. James Andrews ultimately found was not only the inflammation around the elbow, but a small tear in his flexor tendon. That nullified the demotion to Toledo and Hardy went on the Major League injured list.
“I had so many people in my corner say it would’ve been career suicide if I decided to go down to Triple-A and keep pitching through this,” Hardy said. “If something happened, and they found the tear at Triple-A, it would have been hard to retro it back to a big-league deal.”
The PRP process was no joke, either. It involved pulling stem cells from his pelvis, mixing it with blood and marrow and injecting it into his elbow.
“I was a little surprised by how the process went,” Hardy said. “I’m not a scientist on this, but, they knocked me out for it. They said they were going to roll me over on to the table to complete the procedure and then knock you out.
“I don’t even remember getting rolled to the table.”
It was during the ultrasound that the tear in the flexor tendon was discovered.
“It’s not a big deal,” Hardy said. “The PRP should repair that if it does what it’s supposed to do. My UCL is in good shape.”
Hardy is still a Tiger for now. The club’s medical coordinator Kevin Rand is in the process of finding him a place near Pequot Lakes to begin his rehab. Later, when the weather turns cold, he, wife Nicky and their young son Griffin will likely pull up stakes and move to Arizona to begin training for next season.
“The anxiety is not really there because my arm should be good,” he said. “The fact that I took care of it now and saved my last option should open up more opportunities than if I would’ve burned it. If I have to fight for a job, well, I’ve done that my whole career. It’s nothing new
“We will see what happens this offseason. Who knows, the Tigers may go, ‘He has an option, we might as well bring him back.’”
When healthy, Hardy has been a valuable asset to the Tigers pitching staff. In 2018, when his arm was strong, he contributed 13 starts to a beleaguered rotation. He has an above-average change-up and curve ball, but he’s most effective when he’s able to throw his cutter – which the elbow pain prevented him from doing this season.
“I have a lot of trust in Blaine,” Gardenhire said. “I liked him as a starter, too. He’s got all the pitches and he can do a lot of things with a baseball. He has a good feel for the hitters and what they’re trying to do. We like him.
“But we were at a point where we needed innings, we needed guys who could give us more innings.”
After the PRP injection, Hardy fully expects to be able to deliver multiple innings in 2020.
“I’ve always been an optimist,” he said. “If my arm is healthy, I know what I can do. And I’m pretty sure teams know what I can do, too.”