Westmoreland working out, making miraculous progress

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Westmoreland working out, making miraculous progress

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It is a warm but breezy morning at the Red Sox player development complex at the end of Edison Avenue.

On two fields, the organization's youngest minor-leaguers are gathered at the team's Instructional League program, a sort of after-season tutorial with an emphasis on fundamentals. Sprinkled in between are a handful of more advanced prospects such as Casey Kelly and Jose Iglesias, who aren't here for the remedial lessons, but rather, a baseball environment to continue seasons cut short by injuries.

But this morning, it's a third field that is drawing the most attention. There, Ryan Westmoreland swings at ''flips'' -- soft underhand lobs from coach Victor Rodriguez -- and serves them into the outfield.

It's an unremarkable display until one considers where Westmoreland was only months ago.

Westmoreland is no stranger to Instruct, as it's called by its attendees. He's been here before to work back into shape after two baseball injuries, so he knows the training and therapy staffs well.

On this morning, he's under the watchful eye of Chip Simpson, the organization's rehab coordinator and physical therapist. He also works closely with strength and conditioning coach Pat Sandora and head trainer Brad Pearson.

Speaking of Simpson, Westmoreland says: ''He's rehabbed my labrum and my collarbone. But I'm pretty sure he's never rehabbed a brain before.''

Westmoreland's brain is, actually, already ''rehabbed,'' having recovered from a procedure last March when the 19-year-old was found to have a cavernous malformation in his brain stem, requiring immediate and incredibly risky surgery.

Westmoreland, who was confined to bed and wheelchair before graduating to walker, then cane, now lives a normal life. He spends time with his girlfriend and friends in his hometown of Portsmouth, R.I. He can drive a car again and lead a relatively normal life.

That is not satisfying enough, as amazing as his progress has been. Without taking his recovery to date for granted, Ryan Westmoreland wants to continue, to resume the promising baseball career that was cruelly, unexpectedly cut short last March.

He states this without any false bravado, without any trace of self-delusion. Westmoreland almost oozes determination, reflected in the ferocity of his workouts, both on and off the field.

In addition to his gradual ramp up of baseball activities, Westmoreland frequently works on motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination for three or fours, six days per week.

"He's working like he wants to play a game tomorrow,'' says Mike Hazen, the Red Sox' director of player development. "And there are no ifs about it.''

In truth, of course, no one knows whether Westmoreland's goal is physiologically realistic. As Hazen points out, there is very little data on people recovering from brain injuries and playing professsional sports.

But throughout the Red Sox organization, there exist many who now give Westmoreland the benefit of the doubt. He may have a long way to go -- Westmoreland himself says when it comes to recovering his baseball ability, he's currently at about 50 percent -- but he's already made incredible, some would say miraculous, progress.

''To be doing activity, baseball-related, at all is special,'' acknowledges Westmoreland. ''There are definitely some days when I look over nodding toward a nearby field where baserunning drills are ongoing and say, 'Man, I was wish playing in the game today, hitting second and playing center field.' But then I take a deep breath and think about where I was seven months ago. When I think about it like that, it really puts it into perspective about where I was and how far I've come in a relatively short period of time given the circumstances of what happened.''

On Opening Night of the baseball season, Westmoreland watched the Red Sox and New York Yankees play at Fenway from general manager Theo Epstein's box. He was shown seated on the telecast, with sunglasses on. At the time, he couldn't walk at all and could barely see. His speech was slurred and the right side of his face drooped.

That Westmoreland can now take live batting practice, sprint in the outfield, and uncork strong throws again is enough to think that his recovery, miraculous as it seems, is not finished.

"I'm probably surprising a lot of people that I'm doing this much, this early,'' says Westmoreland. "But I'm just trying to take an aggressive path and keep working.''

Even with advanced science and understanding of the brain, there is no definitive window for how long a patient's rehab can continue to progress. On the low end, the best estimate is 18 months; some believe it can last as long as two years, and for someone as young and athletic as Westmoreland, the period might last nearly 36 months.

But Westmoreland doesn't seem to be taking any chances. Unsure of how much time he has to restore himself, he seems intent on maximizing the time to its fullest. Told that yoga could improve his balance and flexibility, he began practicing immediately.

"Some of the stuff he's doing to get back is mindblowing,'' states Hazen.

He will not be cheated.

He was recently cleared to drive by himself again, a task which he undertook with the same dedicated approach undertaken by 16-year-old would-be drivers everywhere, eager for their freedom. Even small victories can be uplifting.

Last month, as he began plotting for a baseball future, Westmoreland revisited his recent past. He went to visit with the Lowell Spinners and began the most basic of baseball workouts. The Spinners were Westmoreland's first pro team after being drafted in the sixth round in 2008, and though most of the players -- most, recent draft picks -- were unfamiliar to him, he felt at home.

Next was a trip to Greenville, S.C., the Red Sox' low Single A affiliate where, in all likelihood, he would have begun this past April before the detection of the malformation.

The Greenville team was full of Westmoreland's teammates at Lowell, who had graduated one step up the minor-league ladder while Westmoreland was re-learning how to open his eyes, speak and walk.

''You get the text messages and the e-mails,'' he says, ''but to go there and see their concern for how you're doing. They're only 20, 21 years old, but they understand what I went through.''

One of the players at Greenville, Jeremy Hazelbaker, was amazed at the progress Westmoreland had made from early September.

"The stuff he's doing now?'' asks Hazen. "Eighty percent of it he couldn't do when he visited Lowell. The progress he's made in the last month has been remarkable. Remarkable.''

Such leaps are often chronicled by the Red Sox with a video camera, if for no other reason than to remind Westmoreland how far he's already come.

And yet, to watch Westmoreland on the field is to see how far there is still to go. There are contradictions everywhere. While he can run at a good speed with only a little laboring in his form, the after-effects of the surgery are more noticeable when he walks; his right leg is sometimes stiff.

Westmoreland can, paradoxically, swing at pitches and line them all over a practice field, but can have difficulty merely picking up an errant baseball with his right hand.

In the outfield, his longtosses out of a crow hop - as if he had come up with a one-hop single in right with the intent of cutting down a runner at third -- are powerful and mostly accurate. But standing still, his throws at 60 feet or so can be awkward and off-target. Some motor skills were impacted and others weren't.

"I'm doing every activity; I'm not doing every activity well,'' is how Westmoreland categorizes his re-learned baseball aptitude. But as if to stress the progress made, he adds: "But I am doing it all. The bigger steps came earlier. Now, it's about fine-tuning and getting back into total baseball shape.''

He will spend most of the offseason here in Fort Myers, mostly isolated, with family and friends back in Rhode Island. Recalling a two-month hospital and rehab facility stay, Westmoreland will not complain. The work is liberating.

''I'm not upset to be here at all,'' he says. "I've come so far in seven months and
I don't plan on stopping. I'm doing a lot better than I was and I've come to terms with what's happened. When I do fail at something initially, I understand it's just a little setback.''

Having achieved a normal quality of life again, Westmoreland is grateful. But he catches himself settling for just that and directs his objectives to the field.

"I don't want it to be, 'Oh, well,' '' says Westmoreland of the notion of casually dismissing baseball and settling.

A ''broad goal.'' would have him fully taking part in just about all activities next spring training.

Hazen, understandably, does not want to get into projecting how much more Westmoreland can do and how soon.

"We have absolutely no timetable,'' he says. "We're not evaluating the on-field baseball stuff right now. We're just kind of building an athletic foundation. But I will say this: I don't think anyone's counting out what this kid of capable of.''

But Ryan Westmoreland has bigger, more specific plans. He planned to make it to the big leagues when he was drafted and to his way of thinking, that dream has only been interrupted, not ended, by brain surgery.

''I'm a very driven guy and I'm very motivated,'' says Westmoreland, a statement so obvious that it's almost laughable. ''and I want to get to my ultimate goal, playing at Fenway. However long that takes, that will still be my goal.''

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam.

Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Three Things we learned from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

1) It only seems like David Ortiz can come through every time.

When Ortiz comes to the plate as he did Friday night -- bases loaded, no out, bottom of the ninth, Red Sox trailing by a run -- it seems like a win is a fait accompli.

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one might have a chance to be ended right there,'' said John Farrell. "He's been so big for us that everybody in the dugout felt the same way -- confident that the stage was set for him to come through with another dramatic moment.''

Instead, Ortiz rolled over a ground ball to second, and with the Twins infield drawn in, it was enough to turn a 4-2-3 double play that took the starch out of the inning for the Sox.

If anything, though, the inning revealed how remarkable Ortiz has been so often. It's not easy to come through even most times, and it's certainly far from automatic.

"The pitcher (closer Brandon Kintzler) made good pitches,'' said Ortiz. "That's the name of the game. I'm always looking forward to something happening. It just doesn't work out all the time.''

2) Eduardo Rodriguez has his slider back.

When Rodriguez endured a rough stretch in late May and June, he seemed to all but abandon his slider, relying almost exclusively on his two-seam fastball and changeup.

But since returning from a stint in Pawtucket, Rodriguez has flashed the slider that made him so effective as a rookie last season.

"Since he's come back,'' said Farrell, "he's added much more depth. He's able to get to the back foot of some righthanders for some swing-and-miss. He was on the plate with three quality pitches for strikes tonight.''

"I feel like I can locate it better, where I want it,'' confirmed Rodriguez. "Outside, inside corner...I'm getting more confident in it. I think I got out of my mind the tipping (pitches) stuff and all that stuff and I'm just working to throw the ball right where I want it.''

It's almost impossible for a starter in the big leagues to survive with just two pitches, as Rodriguez was attempting to do earlier this season. And it seems foolish to even try, given that Rodriguez's slider can be a plus-pitch for him at times.

3) If Mookie Betts has to miss some time, the Red Sox have options in right field.

Farrell said Betts has been dealing with soreness and stiffness in his right knee since after the All-Star break and has been undergoing treatment.

There's no evidence that this is serious, and he's considered day-to-day. But even if Betts needs some time off, or in a worse-case scenario, has to go on the DL, the Sox can do some things with their outfield.

Michael Martinez's best outfield position is right, as he demonstrated Friday night after taking over for Betts in the top of the fifth. Martinez ran a long way to grab a ball in foul territory for the final out in the sixth, then turned in a fine, tumbling catch in the eighth to take extra bases away from Adam Grossman.

Bryce Brentz, who's been in a platoon of sorts in left with Brock Holt, has played a lot of right field in the minors and has the arm strength to play there.

Finally, there's the matter of Andrew Benintendi. The Sox raised some eyebrows with the news that they were having Benintendi move over to left field at Double A Portland, perhaps in anticipation of playing the position for Boston at some point later this year.

Benintendi is a natural center fielder and even though he doesn't much experience in right, if you're athletic enough to play center, you can usually move to either corner spot.

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

QUOTES:

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one had a chance to be ended right there.'' - John Farrell on David Ortiz's at-bat with no out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

"I feel like I can locate it better - outside, inside corner -- so it's given me more confidence.'' - Eduardo Rodriguez on the improvement with his slider.

"I always look forward to something (good) happening; it just doesn't work out all the time.'' - David Ortiz on his ninth-inning at-bat.

NOTES:

* The Red Sox saw a seven-game winning streak at Fenway -- their longest of the season -- snapped.

* Boston has homered in 13 consecutive games.

* The Red Sox bullpen has posted a 1.17 ERA since July 6.

* Mookie Betts became the first Red Sox hitter to hit 20 homers in a season before he turns 24 since Nomar Garciaparra.

* Dustin Pedroia has reached base in 30 straight games.

* The eight strikeouts posted by Eduardo Rodriguez were a season high and one shy of his career high.

* The loss was only the 15th this season in games in which the Red Sox score first.

* Rodriguez has not allowed an opposing baserunner to steal a base since July 5, 2015.

STARS:

1) Kyle Gibson

Don't let the 5.12 ERA he had coming in fool you. Gibson worked out a little jam in the first, then completely shut the Red Sox down the rest of the way, allowing just one hit and one walk after the first.

2) Brian Dozier

Dozier homered in the second to tie the game, singled in the fourth, walked in the sixth and singled again in the eighth -- reaching base in all four plate appearances.

3) Miguel Sano

Sano invited trouble when he dropped a routine pop-up to allow the Red Sox to put the potential tying run on base in the eighth. But he had three base hits on the night, including a run-scoring double that put the Twins ahead to stay in the sixth.

Sean McAdam can be followed on Twitter: @Sean_McAdam