The Cincinnati Reds are trying to chase down the Milwaukee Brewers, but they'll now have to do so without one of their top offensive players, lost to a torn ligament in his thumb.
Whoa. Deja vu.
There's some irony in the fact that two players who went face to face in a particularly nasty brawl a couple seasons ago, Yadier Molina and Brandon Phillips, are now headed to the disabled list and possibly surgery with near-identical injuries. The two stars are both likely to miss between eight and 12 weeks after spraining their thumbs.
These are similar injuries to what Bryce Harper and Josh Hamilton had earlier this season, with the good news being both came back well after surgery to reattach the ligament.
While the Cardinals and Reds have not yet confirmed that the injuries were to the ulnar collateral ligament (thumb) in their respective players, the mechanism of injury certainly suggests it for both. The UCL is also the most often injured ligament in that part of the hand.
Note: The UCL in the thumb is not the same as the UCL in the elbow, which is replaced in Tommy John surgery. "Ulnar collateral" is a medical description of the bone and function. These two different ligaments are on opposite ends of the same bone, hence the similar name.
For Molina, Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post Dispatch broke the news:
Surgery for Molina. Will be out 8 to 12 weeks, per Mozeliak. Torn thumb ligament.— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) July 10, 2014
Molina injured his thumb in a very unusual way. Like Harper, he injured his thumb on a slide into third, but he slid feet first. As this MLB.com video shows, he injured his thumb as it slid behind him.
It's unclear at what point it extended. The normal mechanism for this type of injury is that the thumb is pulled back, toward the wrist. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former catcher, noted that Molina's thumb has been beat up by catching, but it's unclear if it was weakened previously and this slide was the final straw.
"When I felt it, right away I knew there was something wrong with it," Molina said via Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "That's the way I always slide. This time, my thumb got stuck in the dirt, and you saw what happened. Mentally, I'm so frustrated. You play hard, and for something to happen like that, it's bad."
For Phillips, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports did the honors:
Phillips' mechanism was far more normal. This MLB.com video shows that his thumb was pulled back as he tried to make a diving stop on a ball. It's a play he's likely made hundreds of times in his baseball career, but getting the thumb into just the wrong position caused the injury.
Neither the Reds nor the Cardinals have confirmed that their injured players will need surgery. Rosenthal is reporting that Phillips will have surgery tomorrow. It is common in these cases. The UCL can be easily reattached or stitched back together as necessary, and the healing tends to be very simple. The patient is braced for a few weeks and can work back to swinging a bat in as little as a month.
The success rate is very high for this kind of surgery.
If surgery is needed, both are likely to consult with Dr. Thomas Graham in Cleveland. Graham has become the first call for most players who have any sort of thumb injury. He did the surgery on Harper earlier this year. Dr. Steven Shin did the surgery for Hamilton and is one of the Kerlan-Jobe doctors who often gets the first call on the West Coast.
Molina may have a slightly harder time with this. The demands of catching take more of a toll on the thumb, though it is his right (throwing) hand rather than his catching hand, which would be much more difficult to come back from. (Molina does have a special material inside his glove that dissipates force already, so it would be difficult to cushion him more if it were necessary.)
A 12-week loss would put both players very near the end of the season. Since their squads are both in contention now, it's unlikely they would be shut down unless their teams fell completely out of the chase.
On the upside, both Harper and Hamilton returned ahead of that mark and have had no real problems once they returned.
These sprains are a tough break for both NL Central contenders. In races so tight, almost anything can be a difference-maker. More often than not, it's team health. Losing Phillips (1.1 WAR) and Molina (1.7 WAR) could be that difference.