Duke rehabs with goal of returning this season

Lefty reliever underwent Tommy John surgery in October

Duke rehabs with goal of returning this season

ST. LOUIS -- A look at the past and present would suggest that by late July, the Cardinals will be in the market for pitching help. It's what they've acquired in six of the seven moves made within 10 days of the non-waiver Trade Deadline since Mike Matheny became manager, and concerns about the durability of some of their current relievers hint that holes may arise.

But perhaps this time, St. Louis can find relief from within.

Not only do the Cards have a crop of young pitchers performing well for Triple-A Memphis, but they have a veteran who refuses to accept this as a season missed.

Zach Duke, who had what Dr. James Andrews described to him as one of the most complex procedures he performed in 2016, continues to push past rehab benchmarks without setback. His chances of pitching this season seemed slim when it was announced last October that Duke required Tommy John surgery to replace a torn left elbow ligament, repair the flexor tendon and remove a bone spur.

Now, Duke believes he could be back pitching for the Cardinals by August.

"I hoped that I would be able to pitch this year, for a number of reasons," Duke said. "I can't complain about how it's going. It definitely feels like it's fast, but my arm is really recovering well. It feels good throwing. It's been a while since I felt good throwing."

That's because Duke had been pitching with a compromised elbow ligament since 2007.

Duke, who believes his recovery was sped up by the stem-cell injection he had post-surgery, began throwing off the mound earlier this month. He's increasing the workload this week by throwing three bullpen sessions in a five-day span before relocating to Jupiter, Fla.

There, Duke will spend the next month facing hitters in extended spring camp. And if all goes well, he has his eye on beginning a Minor League rehab assignment come July.

Duke's barehanded play

"The challenge is I have to be able to take on pitching two or three days in a row," Duke said. So it's not necessarily the number of pitches, it's the frequency. That's what we're building up to."

Duke's return could come around the year anniversary of his arrival in St. Louis. The Cards targeted him last year at the non-waiver Trade Deadline as a veteran left-hander who could fortify their bullpen immediately and be a key piece in 2017, the final year of his contract.

Duke did his part last season, allowing five runs over 23 1/3 innings. All was fine until he felt his flexor tendon pop in his final appearance.

Not only would the Cardinals welcome another experienced left-hander to help alleviate some of the pressure on Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil, but Duke also would like to prove he's healthy before becoming a free agent in the fall. At 34 years old, he's rehabbing with an eye on much more than a few cameo appearances this season.

"It's going to be a grind this next month, but hopefully things keep going well," he said. "Obviously, it all depends on if I keep progressing and if I can recover. We'll see how it plays out."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.