PITTSBURGH – Rob Zastryzny was the feel-good story of opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The journeyman left-handed reliever got credit for the win on March 30 when the Pirates beat the Reds in Cincinnati. That came just hours after he had found out he had made the team after being a non-roster invitee to spring training.
However, Zastrzyny’s season took a downward turn on April 16 when he was placed on the injured list with what was termed elbow discomfort. Though an upbeat guy by nature and a popular clubhouse figure, the 31-year-old couldn’t help but fear the worst.
The words Tommy John surgery flashed through Zastrzyny’s mind more than once when he left the Pirates in St. Louis after going on the IL and returned to Pittsburgh to be examined by team doctors. He was on the same flight as Pirates first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who had also been put on the IL with a left Achilles strain.
“Any time you have an injury where you don’t know what you’re feeling, your mind just goes to the worst,” Zastrzyny said. “The worst would be (out) a year, year-and-a-half. Things like (Tommy John surgery). When I was flying back from St. Louis, I called my wife and was like, ‘This could be it. I don’t know.’ And she was just like, ‘The more you focus on it, the more you’re going to stress.’
“I tried to do everything I could to take my mind off it. I was playing phone games. I was doing everything. I had Ji Man (Choi) with me, so I just talked to him. But when your mind goes there, you just can’t sleep, you can’t eat – you can’t do anything.”
It turned out that Zastrzyny’s elbow was structurally sound, and his pain was being caused by an irritated nerve. He was activated from the IL on Friday night before the Pirates routed the Arizona Diamondbacks 13-3 at PNC Park in the opener of a three-game series.
Zastryzny was injured amid the Pirates’ 20-8 start to the season. That was followed by 12 losses in 13 games and Zastryzny admits it was hard to be a bystander when things went sour.
The Pirates, though, have now won three of their last four.
“Anytime you’re in a clubhouse, especially one that’s winning and one that goes through a stretch that we went through, you want to help as much as you can,” Zastryzny said. “So, it was a little bit tough mentally not being able to do anything. It feels great to be back.”
Zastryzny already knows how tenuous a major league career can be. He is in his 11th professional season but has pitched just 44 innings at the major league level.
The elbow injury made him appreciate the fleeting nature of his profession even more.
“(Opening day) was a super high point in my career and then it’s throwing well, the team’s doing really well and then you have a rough stretch, and you go on the IL – it’s kind of a hopeless feeling,” Zastryzny said. “Being able to be back and contributing to the team is all I’ve been hoping for.”