Back on August 18th, 2019, the Colorado Rockies shut down Scott Oberg for the rest of the season due to 'axillary artery thrombosis'. That was a devastating blow to the organization as Oberg — who had just taken over the closer's role — was one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball.
Shortly after that announcement, the Tewksbury High Hall of Famer went to Missouri and underwent two surgeries with the hopes that blood clots in his right (pitching) arm would subside. Two years earlier he had the same issue.
After successful surgery and then a rehabilitation process, Oberg was healthy when spring training began this past February. COVID-19 pushed the season back to early August, and that’s when Oberg first went through some minor back problems landing him on the disabled list to begin the season. On August 2nd, he was throwing off the mound during a simulated game as he was trying to get back to the big league club. That session quickly came to a halt as Oberg had injured his right pitching hand. He walked off the field and would later have his hand and middle finger examined. It was determined that he had ischemia, which is when blood doesn't flow properly to parts of the body, AKA, blood clots. That unfortunately ended his season.
After some speculation that this could possibly be it for Oberg, he said 'absolutely no way'. He elected for additional surgery which was performed on August 23rd. He is now gearing up for more rehab so he can get back on the mound and be the dominant relief pitcher that he had been during the 2018 and '19 seasons.
"Surgery was successful and I've had about a full week of physical therapy in and moving in the right direction," he said when reached by phone last Friday from his home in New Jersey. "I still have some swelling and some soreness, but I felt like I have already made some good strides in the seven or eight days that I've been post (operated on) already. We are just working range of motion until I get clearance from the doctor that I can do weights."
Oberg went to the University of Pennsylvania to have the surgery which was done by Dr. Darren Schneider, who is considered a national leader in vascular surgery. Schneider took out Oberg's first – and highest – rib under his right shoulder. This was done to help relieve pressure on the nerves and blood vessels. The doctor then performed another surgery, which hopefully this time will prevent future blood clots.
Oberg was asked about the pain or discomfort he felt when he had to walk off the mound of that simulated game and to what Schneider did during the procedure.
"It was only different in the sense that there was a lot more swelling. It was a little different because (the pain) started up around my neck. My neck movement was kind of restricted and still is a little bit now," he said. "He went into the same spot in my armpit for the other artery, so it's the third time that I've had that done so I kind of knew what to expect there. There's just a little soreness right now so it's just a matter of getting full range of motion fully back."
With this being the third time with the same issues, Oberg was asked if Schneider could pinpoint the exact problem.
"He identified those spots and he saw there was enough pressure. He told me that he can't definitely tell me where they exactly they came from. His guess was it came from the Circumplex Femur Artery — which is right by the shoulder. He saw enough compression with the rib up by the artery so he thought it was worth doing (the surgery). We had some internal dialogue. We talked about maybe it was worth being a little bit more aggressive this time around and how we didn't want to leave anything left on the table, if we don't have to."
Schneider was also able to diagnose that Oberg didn't have any issues with his nerves – had that been the case, ultimately Oberg would have had a lot more thinking to do.
"I don't think this (rehab process) will be too much different from what I have done before," he said. "It's a little different and I'm fortunate that I didn't have any nerve issues and that's usually when you have to do TOS (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) when guys have nerve problems and the rehab gets a little tricky because you have to wait for those nerves to calm down.
"Fortunately for me he diagnosed it as Arterial Theratic Outlet, so it's more about letting the scars and your body heal from surgery and getting your range of motion back. We are really not in a position where we have to wait and try to figure out (other things). If I was having nerve issues that would be a more difficult road to go down so fortunately I don't have to do that."
According to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post, a number of former and current Major League Baseball pitchers have gone through the same injuries as Oberg, including Matt Harvey and New Hampshire's Chris Carpenter. In both of those cases, those pitchers were not as effective after their surgeries. On the flip side of that, players like Kenny Rogers and Aaron Cook, a former Rockies pitcher, were significantly better after they went under the knife.
"I've been in touch with (Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher) Chris Archer (who had the surgery done before me) a lot," said Oberg. "He and I exchanged some texts and some video chats as well. I think he is three or four months post (operated) at this point. He just told me that he is throwing some weighted balls. I also talked to (Rockies teammate and former Boston Red Sox pitcher) Daniel Bard, as he went through it."
From that time the injury happened on August 2nd until the day he elected to see Schneider and have the procedures, Oberg admitted that emotionally he was all over the place.
"It was difficult. I had gone down this road a few times before. Initially there were just a lot of unanswered questions and I kind of let my mind wonder a little bit, maybe too much. It was definitely a little more emotional this time around," he said. "Then I started to get some answers back. We ruled out all of the blood work, all of the heart issues and we went through a gauntlet of tests and they all came back negative. At least from an overall health perspective, that was a good sign that we didn't have any extra drama. We just needed to address the actual issue, go right after it so hopefully I can continue to play for as long as possible."
For the next six-to-eight weeks, Oberg will work on his recovery, getting range of motion back and take on some weight lifting. The plan is for him to start throwing right after Thanksgiving, with the hopes of being ready for spring training in February.
"Hopefully I get the OK from the doctor next week and I get to do some light strengthening and maybe he will give me more of a protocol for a week by week basis," said Oberg. "I'll probably have to see him a few more times over the winter. I'll be on the blood thinners for a couple of months so hopefully I'll start throwing after Thanksgiving, early December so I would say maybe eight weeks from now.
"The goal is to be ready for spring training. The trainers have been open about that we don't have to rush things. Fortunately I'm at a point in my career where I don't necessarily feel like I have to fight as much for a spot on the team. Obviously I still have to fight for certain jobs, but I just have to prove that I can pitch and guys get out again after missing a full year.
“I'm definitely excited to be able to move forward and when I start throwing, as long as everything looks good and feels good, hopefully we will be on the right track moving forward and be read for the season."
Throughout his life, Oberg has dominated on the pitcher's mound whether it's been in high school (Class of 2008) at UConn, in the minor leagues and now with the Rockies, dating back to his debut in April of 2015. He has pitched in playoff games, was the winning pitcher of a wildcard playoff game, he lived out his dream of performing in front of the home town fans last year at Fenway, and he's been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball.
In 2018 and '19, he combined for a 14-2 record with a 2.35 ERA. Last year, at the incredibly difficult Coors Field, he was 5-0 with a 1.71 ERA with four saves, while not allowing a home run all season.
While he's had tremendous success, he has gone through some set-backs with other injuries before he reached the professional level.
"It's something that I have gone through before," he said. "It's something that I have previously been prepared for and now I'm just doing everything in my power to get back. The feeling may have been different now if I hadn't gone through it already in the past and not fully aware of what my body was going to be feeling like or how long the process was going to take.
"I just feel like as long as I put the work in, continue to lean in on my family, the doctors and everyone else around me that I have, it should be like everything else and I should be able to come out on the other side of this thing as I would like to play for as long as I can."
The 2020 regular season just ended and for the second straight year the Rockies did not make the playoffs, which came after two straight years of making it and losing in the first round. He said that not being in uniform and making the jog out of the bullpen on a consistent basis was certainly difficult.
"It's tough to watch when I'm at home. Not being able to help and contribute was tough and not being in the clubhouse with the guys. Obviously the silver lining is being at home, but it was kind of tough to watch sometimes," he said. "You know the talent that is in the clubhouse, you know how good the coaching staff is, it's just tough when some guys are banged up, or not everybody has played as consistently as they would have liked too, so it was tough because we didn't get the offense going as much as we would have liked. The bullpen had some inconsistencies. There were some good things that came out of the starting pitchers so that was good to see going forward. We caught the ball really well. I think we were ranked the second best defensive team in the National League.
"I think it's just a matter of putting it all together on a daily basis. The days that they did put it together, they were playing really well and winning those games. It was just a matter of some days where the offense wasn't there and some days the offense would be there and maybe the pitching wasn't there, or whatever the case may be. That's the trick, getting everyone clicking at the same time."
Oberg, who is also the Rockies' player representative, was asked about this season with MLB playing under different rules due to the pandemic.
"It was different and I didn't really get the full experience of all of it. I didn't get to go on any road trips, or see how much the changes to the daily schedule were affected or what kind of other adjustments needed to be made on a day-to-day basis. I think our team did a really, really good job of adhering the protocols, being smart away from the field as we didn't have any issues. It was good to see guys take it seriously. It probably created some day-to-day difficulty in terms of getting ready as some things weren't available like they were in the past, so you just had to deal with it.
"I was hopeful that the protocols that were in place would get us to the finish line. I think (MLB) was smart enough making some adjustments after the Marlins and Cardinals situations and making sure that they got to the end of the season. It would have been a lot worse if they had to shut the whole thing down. They did some good things. There were a lot of mid-season changes that they had to make and they weren't afraid to make them so they did what they had to do."