Avisail Garcia's return testament to hard work

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Instinct overtook White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia on Sunday against the Blue Jays as he rounded second base and headed for third.

Slide headfirst or use his head?

"I wanted to do this," Garcia said Monday at U.S. Cellular Field, extending both arms forward as he grinned. "I thought about it but then slid the right way. I am learning to play — what's the word? — more intelligently."

Even if Garcia trying to stretch a double into a triple looked anything but intelligent given the situation, he received congratulations upon returning to the dugout after getting thrown out. It started with trainer Herm Schneider, alongside Garcia for every step of his remarkably quick recovery from a torn labrum and avulsion fracture in his left shoulder.

"Herm said, 'You almost dived, but you're getting smarter,' '' Garcia said. "I slid right. This process has taught me a lot about myself.''

Chicago also has learned something about Garcia since April 9, when he dived for a ball in right field and suffered what first was described as a "season-ending" injury: Never underestimate the 23-year-old Venezuelan. Garcia went from planning on a 2015 comeback to providing the baseball equivalent of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson playing nine months after a torn ACL.

The initial MRI gave Garcia the impression he would miss only two weeks, but further tests confirmed everybody's worst-case scenario. Suddenly, instead of thinking everything happens for a reason, Garcia began asking, "Why me?"

"When Herm told me I was going to miss the entire year, I started crying," Garcia recalled. "I had been playing with the Tigers, play two days, get three off. I came here to play every day. I won the job, and then that happened. I felt awful."

That feeling lingered a few days. Then came the April 15 procedure that changed everything about Garcia's timetable, thanks in large part to Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush surgeon Anthony Romeo. Assisted by team physician Nik Verma, Romeo used an advanced arthroscopic technique to reduce and secure the fractured area, limiting the scar tissue and hastening a bone-with-bone healing process that cut time off the layoff.

A source familiar with the surgery revealed the tear of the labrum was worse than expected, but Romeo successfully aligning the bone fragments created a smoother road to recovery. It also helped that the injury occurred to Garcia's non-throwing shoulder.

Hours after Garcia's surgery, Romeo confided to a colleague, "I believe he will be back this year."

That immediately became the goal once Garcia reported to Athletico Physical Therapy for months of arduous rehabilitation, regardless of the safer public projections offered. One doctor said Garcia attacked rehab "like a hockey or rugby player."

"My first day, I decided to work hard to come back this year, and that's why I'm here now," Garcia said. "It wasn't a vacation. It was tough. I did everything they said. If they said 20 minutes on the bike, I was 20 minutes on the bike. The only thing that changed was I wasn't playing."

That created mental anguish that exceeded his physical pain. While Jose Abreu continued hitting home runs, Garcia kept wondering how much fun it would be to follow the Cuban slugger in the order. Garcia battled the boredom watching movies and playing with his baby daughter, but even going for walks along Michigan Avenue, one of his favorite things to do in the city, tested his patience.

"I had to watch it because somebody might bump into my shoulder," Garcia said. "Everything was so boring, but now I'm glad I did it right."

So are the Sox, who welcomed back a core player who makes them harder to ignore the final six weeks of a so-so season. Much like rookie pitcher Carlos Rodon likely will in September, Garcia offers instant optimism for South Siders despite a record below .500. As confident as Garcia remained in his ability, even he acknowledged surprise at how comfortable he felt at the plate after missing four months.

"The way I see the ball now is good," Garcia said. "I will have struggles, strikeouts. But what are you going to do? I lost a lot of time. That's not an excuse. It's truth. The most important thing is I'm healthy."

Which is how Garcia plans to stay, thanks to a slight adjustment to the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder's approach.

"You have to play hard, and I will, but if you don't get to a ball, you don't get it," Garcia said. "I don't see big guys in the outfield diving much. Usually it's skinny guys like (Adam) Eaton. So everybody tells me the same thing — Robin (Ventura), Rick (Hahn), Kenny (Williams)."

He paused, smiling.

"No more diving!" Garcia shouted.

The only way is up, just like Garcia's future.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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