NEW YORK -- Jonny Venters and the Braves got the news they feared and hated to hear when an MRI exam showed the left-hander has again torn the reconstructed ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and will require a third Tommy John surgery if he hopes to pitch again.
One of the best relief pitchers in baseball during his first three seasons in the majors, Venters, 29, has not pitched since having a second Tommy John surgery in May 2013. So far, there have only been a couple of pitchers, Jose Rijo and Jason Isringhausen, who came back to pitch at a high level after having a third Tommy John surgery.
"I feel for the young man," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after announcing the Venters news Thursday afternoon. "You hate for players to get hurt -- and he's a young guy, he's not even 30 years old -- in the middle of their careers. And it happens. It happens all the time. But when it happens to one of your guys, you feel bad for him."
Venters left the team in Cincinnati over the weekend and returned to see Dr. James Andrews at his Florida clinic after having recurring pain in his elbow when he tried to ramp up his throwing program with bullpen sessions during the Braves' road trip. Andrews did both TJ surgeries on Venters, who had his first procedure as a minor leaguer after the 2005 season.
News of Venters' health hit his friends and teammates hard.
"He came back and was really, really strong" after his first surgery, Braves reliever David Carpenter said. "He was by far one of the best left-handers in the game. And to just see him battle back (from a second TJ surgery) and you're thinking, hey, he's got a chance to come back and do that again. And to be dealt that kind of hand is tough.
"I'd love to see him get back in it. I don't see him taking this lying down. I know it's tough news."
Venters said in a text that he would talk to reporters Friday in Atlanta when the team is back in town after its road trip.
Andrews gave Venters a platelet-rich plasma injection in June in hopes of calming down the discomfort and inflammation in his elbow so that he could continue his rehab. After about four weeks of rest, he resumed his throwing program, initially without any discomfort. But when he increased his activity and started to do some light throwing sessions from the mound, the pain returned.
Two other Braves pitchers, starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, had their second TJ surgeries in March and are about to begin the initial stages of their post-surgery throwing programs. Neither has reported any setbacks so far.
Venters rehabbed during the entire 2013 season in hopes of returning this season in June or July. The Braves weren't sure if he'd make it back, but re-signed him to a one-year, $1.625 million contract for 2014, the same salary he made the year before. If he tries to continue pitching, he'd be eligible for arbitration or become a free agent if the Braves don't offer a contract.
As recently as three weeks ago, Venters told reporters he wasn't having any problems in his initial sessions throwing off the mound. But the amiable left-hander is known to have a high pain tolerance and a willingness to pitch through discomfort, as he did at times during the 2012 season.
"We couldn't get him past the hump," Gonzalez said of the recent rehab. "That's when (head trainer Jeff Porter) said, 'Let's send him back (to get checked). There's got to be something.' And they did the MRI and all that stuff. He re-tore it. ... We didn't really get him cranked up yet. He was playing catch and throwing some side (sessions)."
Venters was throwing only about 20 pitches in the few side sessions that he did before shutting down his throwing again this week.
"That (20 pitches) was probably the most he ever cranked up, and it was probably at 50, 60, 70 percent," Gonzalez said. "So I don't know exactly when it was (re-injured). There was always discomfort there."
Venters was one of most dominant relievers in baseball in his first two seasons, when his 94-95 mph sinkers and sliders made him devastatingly effective against right-handed hitters and all but unhittable against lefties. He posted a 1.95 ERA in 75 appearances in 2010, and was even better in 2011 -- a 1.84 ERA in a majors-leading 85 appearances, with 96 strikeouts in 88 innings.
Venters had a .176 opponents' average that season, including .127 (10-for-79) with 38 strikeouts by lefty batters.
"He was like a left-handed Craig Kimbrel," said Carpenter, who was an Astros rookie at the time and remembered being amazed by Venters' electric sinkers that were featured in plenty of Braves game highlights.
His performance slipped some in 2012, when Venters pitched with sporadic elbow problems and still posted a 3.22 ERA in 66 appearances. During the three-year period from 2010 through 2012, Sean Marshall (231) was the only major league pitcher with more appearances than Venters (230).
Among all relievers in that period, Venters was third in innings (229 2/3), fourth in strikeouts (258), second in walks (110) and ninth in ERA (2.23).
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