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Don’t call it a comeback: Jonny Venters return to majors with Rays much more than that

BALTIMORE — First, think of what you were doing on Oct. 5, 2012, and how much has happened in your own world since then.

That will give you a time frame.

Next, consider the challenge of rehabbing from two Tommy John surgeries and a third procedure to reattach a torn ligament in that same left elbow, which already had been rebuilt nearly a decade earlier.

That will give you context.

Then, notice how so many people were happy to see him, how the Rays players, coaches and staff all stopped what they were doing to greet him, how players with other teams and media around the game were joining fans in offering congratulations on social media, how his wife, Viviana, three kids and  parents scrambled to make flights to Baltimore.

That will give you perspective.

Jonny Venters making it back to pitch in the majors for the first time in nearly six years isn't just a nice, little comeback story. It's a major accomplishment, one that can be described as a testament to hard work, resiliency, determination, faith and a litany of other phrases, none of which seem properly descriptive.

"There simply is not a word to accurately assess what this man has done,'' longtime Tampa-based agent B.B. Abbott said. "Resilient seems wholly lacking for what he has accomplished.

"He has not thrown a pitch in the big leagues for almost six years and has endured three additional surgeries, with only 27 minor-league innings in between. He has spent months away from his family rehabbing for an outcome that was so improbable and unknown that to simply call it unprecedented feels almost hollow for what he, Viviana and his family has gone through.

"Whether this is for one day or five years, it is nothing short of incredible that he will be walking onto a major-league field (Wednesday) in Baltimore as a big-league pitcher. In a word, or three: pretty damn cool.''

The smile on Venters' face said plenty as he walked into the Rays clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, the circumstances of the day adding to the drama.

He was in uniform for Triple-A Durham's 10:35 a.m. matinee, expecting to pitch there. A rain delay sent him and other relievers scrambling from the bullpen back to the clubhouse. He got called into Bulls manager Jared Sandberg's office and told he was being called up, and needed to get going. He called his wife and parents, grabbed some clothes out of his truck (since he'd been living in a hotel and Durham was going on the road) and headed to the airport.

"It's hard to put into words how I'm feeling,'' said Venters, 33. "It's been an emotional day. I'm excited to be here, grateful for the opportunity.''

The Rays plan to give him plenty of chances, certain that even though he's no longer the flamethrower he was for the Braves during a 2010-12 run that included an All-Star appearance, that he can get out lefty hitters, relying now more on a fastball in the low 90s, a sinker and a changeup.

He showed that during a solid spring training, then  his first few weeks at Durham.

And Wednesday, when he came in to face Chris Davis to start the sixth of a 5-4 game and needed only four pitches to get a ground  out. He was nervous jogging in, his heart racing a bit, comparable, he admitted, to his major-league debut in April 2010.  Then reflective, even a bit overwhelmed, when he got back to the dugout after his outing, taking in the magnitude of the moment.

"It was an amazing experience, just to get out there on a big-league mound, in a big-league game with this group of guys and be able to get an out and help this team win," he said. "A special thing I'll never forget the rest of my life. My family was here, they made their flight. A  dream come true really."

For Venters to get back, he not only had to overcome the physical issues with his elbow but the doubts raging in his head.

Not only if he could make it, but if it was even worth still trying. Most pointedly after he did all the work rehabbing from the third Tommy John surgery, only to have the elbow ligament tear again after five June appearances for the Class A Stone Crabs.

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"I think I all but made my mind up I wasn't going to do it again,'' Venters said. "And I spoke with the doctors and my family, and kind of everybody thought it was a good idea to do it again. So I thought I felt like if everybody that I cared about thought that way, that I'd be stubborn to not try it again. So here I am.''

As if the story wasn't special enough, including being what the Rays say is the first pitcher to make it back to the majors after three Tommy John surgeries, team officials rave about what a great influence and greater example Venters was on their minor-leaguers at all levels. And how strong an impression he made on their Port Charlotte-based rehab staff led by Joel Smith, which also celebrated the promotion.

"The organization is really happy, and for good reason,''  manager Kevin Cash said. "He's a good pitcher and probably a better person.''

When Venters last pitched in the majors, he was 27, and he and Viviana had one kid. Chipper Jones was still playing for the Braves, who lost in the NL wild-card game. Sergio Romo was the only current Rays reliever who had been in the big leagues.

All of that gives you an idea of how big a deal this is.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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