Although it certainly doesn't apply to every pitcher, the comeback process from Tommy John surgery generally involves three phases.
There's the lost year and its associated rehab and the first sixth months on the mound, where nothing feels quite right. Then there's the second six months on the mound, where, if everything has gone according to plan, a pitcher starts to recapture his pre-surgery form.
It's that last part of the process that Scott McGregor now -- finally, thankfully -- finds himself.
The Cardinals prospect, who lost the 2011 season and a chunk of last year to elbow surgery, pitched six hitless innings Sunday as Double-A Springfield rolled to a 12-1 thumping of visiting Tulsa.
"I'll take it. That's not one of the worst starts I've ever had, that's for sure," said McGregor, who struck out six batters and walked three. "It's always good to have a start like that coming off Tommy John. They tell you to expect to have your feel come and go that first year back, but it's kind of frustrating. This boosts your confidence."
McGregor (4-1) said he started to feel like his old self toward the end of Spring Training.
"That was 19 months out [from the surgery] and I was like, 'Oh, there it is.' I just kind of felt it in the bullpen," he said.
According to McGregor, the one thing he hadn't anticipated was how much of the mental game would be affected by the long layoff. He said it helped to work with Adam Wainwright before Spring Training began in Jupiter, Fla.
Wainwright, who also sat out the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, came back and had a so-so year for St. Louis before again looking like one of the National League's best pitchers early in 2013. McGregor said he was able to get a lot of advice from the 2010 All-Star about how to get back to where he was pre-surgery.
"You put in so much work getting the physical part back, you lose sight of the mental part," McGregor explained. "I was fortunate to do some rehab with Wainwright when he came down [to Florida]. He just told me that you have to have faith that it's coming back. Told me about how the physical part, it comes back, but the mental part, it's hard. Not feeling like yourself, trying to get people out a different way."
The 2008 15th-round Draft pick had taken his greatest strides as a pro in 2010, putting up a 2.68 ERA over 57 innings for Class A Advanced Palm Beach before moving up to Springfield and going 6-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 80 2/3 frames.
In his first post-surgery stint last year, he logged a 6.86 ERA over 59 innings for Springfield, evidence of how hard it is to get back on the mound and start throwing again.
This season, however, he looks like he's got that 2010 form again, boasting a 2.36 ERA that ranks just outside the top 10 in the Texas League. He's tied for the top spot with four wins and has 33 strikeouts against only 10 walks in 34 1/3 innings.
"You can't control when these things happen, I've just been trying to look on the positives, not dwell on the past," McGregor said. "[This start] is definitely something to get the momentum going for the rest of the year."
Starlin Rodriguez provided support for McGregor with a pair of doubles and two RBIs. Thomas Pham, rehabbing Cardinals slugger Matt Adams, Jake Lemmerman and Vance Albitz also drove in two runs apiece.