Tommy John surgery claims first major victim in 2018 and could impact notable race

Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Taijuan Walker just became the first major victim of Tommy John surgery in 2018. Manager Torey Lovullo confirmed the unfortunate news before Wednesday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, announcing the 25-year-old hurler has been diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.

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As Nick Piecoro of azcentral reports, Walker exited his start on Saturday with right forearm tightness. He was diagnosed with an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament on Tuesday, and then sought a second opinion on Wednesday in New York which confirmed the severity of his injury.

Several top pitching prospects, including Rays pitchers Brent Honeywell and José De León, along with Jharel Cotton of the Athletics, suffered UCL injuries and required Tommy John surgery in spring training. None of those pitchers though were expected to have an impact on the postseason picture. Walker certainly was. His loss will be a tough one to overcome for an Arizona team that is hoping to unseat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the highly competitive National League West.

“Well, it’s terribly disappointing,” Lovullo said before Arizona’s game against the San Francisco Giants. “I hurt for him. … It’s one of your players going down, and one that we were going to count on is hurting. I know we’re going to support him the best way we can, but this is a tough situation we’re walking through.”

Walker was a big part of Arizona’s wild card team in 2017, posting a 3.49 ERA over 28 regular season starts. He struggled in his lone postseason outing, allowing four runs in one inning in NLDS Game 1 against the Dodgers. That blip on the radar aside, Walker was being counted on to carry an even bigger load again this season. He posted a 3.46 ERA over his first 13 innings before suffering the injury.

The good news is Arizona still has some quality arms left in the rotation. Though both are off to slow starts this season, Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray form one of the best 1-2 punches in the NL. Both were All-Stars last season. Patrick Corbin flashed his ability on Tuesday, pitching a one-hit shutout against the San Francisco Giants. Zack Godley is the wild card of the group. The 27-year-old right-hander is off to a strong start, but might have to pick up even more slack.

The bad news is Arizona doesn’t have a sure answer to fill the fifth rotation spot. Matt Koch will get the first crack, but he’s only logged 20 big-league innings coming into the season. The primary focus will now turn to veteran Shelby Miller, who himself had Tommy John surgery last March. Given the usual 12-15 month timetable for recovery, Miller could be on track for an early summer return. 

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Taijuan Walker is lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. (AP)

The Diamondbacks have given themselves some breathing room with a hot start. They entered play on Wednesday at 12-4, which equaled the New York Mets for the top record in the NL. They have a three-game lead on the Colorado Rockies. Perhaps more importantly, they have a five-game edge on the Dodgers. Even with the Dodgers struggling early, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be there at the end.

Looking at the big picture, Walker’s injury doesn’t figure to be a season killer, but it definitely complicates matters. It lessens Arizona’s margin for error, while increasing the importance of keeping Greinke and their other starters healthy. It also puts a bigger premium on the games started by Arizona’s other four starters, because Walker’s spot will be a definite downgrade.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Yahoo Sports Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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