Brad Ausmus is not a quitter.
Even at age 41, staring back surgery in the eye, Ausmus didn’t blink.
He had signed a one-year deal to serve as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ backup catcher and nothing was going to stop the veteran from honoring that contract.
“I’m not going to use this injury as an excuse to shirk my responsibility,” Ausmus said. “They’re paying me a lot of money so I feel it’s my responsibility to fulfill that contract. Getting injured in the middle of the contract just means I need to get back. That was the only thought in my mind.”
Ausmus moved one step closer to returning to the Majors on Thursday night when he played five innings at catcher for the Albuquerque Isotopes. He went 0-for-2 at the plate with a strikeout and a groundout.
Still, considering where he’s had to come back from, it’s an impressive accomplishment in itself.
“They said it’s a three-month recovery before baseball, so I guess I’m a little ahead of schedule,” Ausmus said. “April 15 was the surgery date, so that projects out to mid-July. It’s pretty close, though. It’s not far off. I think they were being a little conservative with the mid-August due to my age.”
Ausmus’ injury occurred early in the season, though he said he’s still not sure when it happened or even what caused a piece of a disc in his lower back to break off and press against a nerve.
“When it happened it wasn’t so painful,” he said. “I couldn’t pinpoint the exact motion or event that triggered the injury itself. The most pain was lying down or sitting down. When I was standing or walking I was fine. Except for the numbness in my (left) foot which kind of made me feel like I had a scuba flipper on.”
Ausmus said the injury didn’t scare him, though it was different than anything he’d experienced before.
“I’ve had back issues and I’ve had shots in my lower back,” he said. “It was always lower back pain. This injury, although the location was in the lower back, there was really no lower back pain. The pain was in the left leg and foot.”
Ausmus brought it to the attention of the Dodgers’ medical staff in early April.
“I held off about 24 hours before bringing it to the trainer’s attention, hoping it would go away overnight,” Ausmus said. “(Head trainer) Stan Conte pretty much knew right away this was a nerve issue in the lower back that was radiating through the length of the nerve down the lower leg. We got an MRI to confirm it, but there was never much doubt what it was.”
Once Ausmus had the surgery, it was merely a matter of time to let the nerve heal.
“It can take up to 18 months to completely heal a nerve after it’s received some type of trauma, like a piece of disc falling on it,” he said. “The numbness is completely gone at this point. Strength has come back quite a bit, but I still notice a little bit of disparity between the right and left leg. Although the left leg is catching up to the right leg on a daily basis.”
Ausmus said certain aspects of playing are coming back quicker than others.
“Catching and hitting are both fine,” he said. “Standing up, going from a squat to a throw, and running (are tougher). I will say (Thursday) was the best I’ve felt running since the surgery.”
Ausmus will play one inning in tonight’s game against Round Rock and one more inning on Saturday before trying to go the full game on Sunday.
“Really it’s just getting back into the swing of things,” Ausmus said of his goals during his time in Albuquerque. “I’ve had roughly three months off from playing baseball games. That’s an offseason in terms of time. Usually after an offseason you have six, seven weeks of spring training. I’m trying to become game-ready in a little over a week. That mainly just involved getting your body used to squatting and catching.
“I’ve had a little bit of a head start catching bullpens in Los Angeles. I’ve taken batting practice in Los Angeles but I haven’t gotten into the batter’s box much other than the last week, where I see the spin on the ball, the location of the ball, the speed of the ball. Those are things you usually get to do over the course of an exhibition season in Arizona or Florida.”
Ausmus said that while his overall rehabilitation has been a long one, it didn’t drag at any point except when he was back in the dugout at Dodger Stadium.
“I got bored during games,” he said. “The games are the most boring part, because I know there’s no involvement for me. Prior to the games, especially in the last month, the physical rehab has taken up the most of my time. Between the strength training, the agility (exercises), the cardiovascular … I’m busy from two o’clock to seven o’clock when the game starts. I’ve been busy, but it gets boring watching the games and knowing I won’t have any impact on them whatsoever.?”
Ausmus will get a chance to make an impact tonight at 7:05 when the Isotopes and Express open the second game of their four-game series.