San Diego Padres reliever Craig Stammen sat in the visiting dugout at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday three hours before a game against the Cincinnati Reds and told his story.
There were times in the past two seasons when Stammen didn’t know if he would ever return to this stadium or any other big-league park — at least not as a major-league pitcher. The Versailles High School graduate and former Dayton Flyers pitcher returned to the big leagues in April two years after undergoing surgery to repair torn flexor tendons in his right forearm.
“You never know when this baseball life is going to end,” Stammen said. “It could end in a minute, or you could to pick when it ends and you want to retire. There were times when I thought, ‘This might be it,’ but I kept going and said I was going to exhaust all my opportunities and try to get my arm back healthy and see if I could pitch again.”
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Stammen missed the entire 2015 season. The silver lining was he got to spend more time with his girlfriend at the time, Audrey.
They started dating just before he got injured. Former Dayton baseball coach Tony Vittorio introduced them. Audrey was an assistant coach with the UD volleyball program when they met. They married in January.
“I was able to come home a lot,” Stammen said. “She was able to visit a lot. I wasn’t obligated to be at the field as much as I normally would have. We grew stronger because of it.”
Stammen returned to the mound in June 2016, appearing in 23 games in the Cleveland Indians minor-league system. He credited the Indians for taking care of him.
“They allowed me to take as much time as I needed to get healthy,” Stammen said. “By the end of the Triple-A season, I finally felt almost normal again, which gave me hope for this coming season.”
With the Padres, Stammen has returned to the form he showed in six seasons with the Nationals. He has a 3.68 ERA in 40 relief appearances. Entering the second game of the series against the Reds, Stammen had not allowed a run in his last 11 innings. In his last 13 appearances, he had a 0.69 ERA.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Stammen said. “You never know if you’re going to go back to who you were before, if your stuff will play the same way it did before you were injured. But I’m proud of how it’s went so far.”
Stammen’s first appearance with the Padres in April felt like a second-big league debut. It came eight years after he debuted with the Nationals.
“I remember the first time I was like, ‘This is the only one you’ll ever get. Just go have fun. Have a blast,’” Stammen said. “This one I was like, ‘Well, if I stink, I’m done.’”
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Stammen did struggle in April, posing an 8.49 ERA in his first 10 appearances. He turned his season around in May with a 2.65 ERA and was even better in June, posting a 1.84 ERA. Throughout the season, he has appreciated every moment.
“I’ve felt really grateful just to be on a major league team and to play major league baseball,” Stammen said. “I think I always reflect on it more when I come back home and play in Cincinnati just because this is where I can pick out all the seats I sat in. You realize what a privilege it is to be on the field playing and have a position with the Padres.”