SIOUX CITY– For Daniel Tillo, the first six months after Tommy John surgery were the worst.
Tillo, a Sioux City North graduate and a 2017 third-round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals, underwent the elbow ligament replacement surgery in July 2020, and for nearly half a year, was not able to pick up a baseball.
For a guy who has based his life around the game, it was an emotional struggle at times.
“It was a long year for sure, probably the longest year of my life. (I was) in Arizona for 11 months, ”Tillo said. “Every single day, the grind of rehabbing my elbow to get it back to full strength, and not being able to throw a baseball for six months was tough on me mentally too.”
After putting up a 3.47 ERA with 21 strikeouts over 23 ⅓ innings at Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2019, Tillo did not pitch competitively at all in 2020 after the minor league season was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tillo missed the early part of the 2021 season while rehabbing his elbow, but managed to make it back for some limited action in the second half of the year. For Tillo, it was important to come back and pitch before the start of the offseason.
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Two straight years without a professional appearance would have been hard to swallow.
“It’s a lot different when you are throwing bullpens to the catcher than when you are actually in a game with the adrenaline and facing other hitters,” Tillo said. “That is just a whole new level of work that I needed to get in at the end of last year to put myself in a successful position to be ready to play in the big leagues next year, be ready for Kansas City and help them win games. ”
“I just knew I needed to get some innings in at the end of the year, just to get my feet wet again and get some baseball activities back under my feet, and be ready for next year.”
In 29 innings out of the bullpen between rookie ball and Double-A, Tillo struck out 27 batters, while finishing with a 4.03 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.
This offseason, Tillo has continued to work on strengthening his surgically repaired left elbow. It still isn’t quite where he wants it to be, but he hopes to prove himself in the early part of 2022, and potentially earn a spot in the Royals bullpen in the near future.
Unfortunately, this season will start in much the same way as last year for Tillo, who is currently slated to miss eight weeks with a lat-muscle related injury.
Tillo spent most of his life as a starting pitcher, but the Royals shifted him to the pen when he got to Northwest Arkansas in 2019. Rather than be disappointed about the change, he hopes that it might speed things up in his path to the bigs .
“Bullpen guys get to the big leagues quicker, so the quicker you move up and the quicker you get to the big leagues, everything is better for you in life,” Tillo said. “You want to be up there as quickly as possible, and you want to help the team win as many games as possible. If they need me to be in the bullpen and help close a game out, or help be a long relief guy in the bullpen, I can do it all. ”
Former North coach Rory Jackson has known Tillo since he was 14 years old, and has seen the 6-foot-5 inch lefty grow, both as a pitcher and as a person. According to Jackson, Tillo’s maturity lies in his adaptability. Whether it be shifting to the bullpen or rehabbing from surgery, Tillo has shown that he can adjust.
“He has matured tremendously,” Jackson said. “And that is why I think with him and the setback of the Tommy John and the uphill climb in front of him, I think he’ll be mature enough to handle it, and professional enough to do what is asked of him.”
Through all the rehab, and all the games he has pitched in high school, college, and the minor leagues, the goal of making it to the majors has kept the 25-year-old Tillo going.
It’s the dream he has had since he was young, and he might soon have a chance to make it happen. In late 2020, Tillo was added to the Royals’ 40-man roster.
When the Royals made that move, it was to keep another team from selecting Tillo in the Rule 5 Draft, with Royals General Manager Dayton Moore saying of Tillo: “He’s got electric stuff. He was ahead of (Tyler) Zuber for a bullpen role “He’s got a chance to be really good, really special.”
It’s taken a lot of hard work for Tillo to battle back from Tommy John surgery, and it will take a bit more to come back from his latest stint on the Injured List. But the first time he steps onto a major league mound, whether it be at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City or somewhere else, it’ll all have been worth it.
“I can not even put into words what that would be like,” Tillo said. “That is the ultimate goal, is to make the big league and establish myself in the big leagues. Look up into the suite, press box area and see my family up there, my grandparents, my brother, all my brothers, my best friends, my girlfriend, all that. I want to see them in the press box, with my jersey on, for my debut someday. That is what I’m striving for. “