For nearly two months, Jake Diekman has been a constant companion for the Texas Rangers.
Unable to play because of the long process he is taking to rid his life of ulcerative colitis, the left-hander has, nonetheless, not missed a day since the Rangers opened spring training, shut it down and then opened the regular season with a 2-4 homestand.
The best thing he can do for his competitive spirit is to be around the team and his teammates. Though he can’t compete on the field after the first of three surgical procedures — one that removed his colon — he is competing against the 162-game clock and what doctors will allow him to do later this season, to pitch again.
He takes the next and most difficult step Wednesday.
Diekman left the Rangers on Monday, a Rangers off day ahead of their nine-game West Coast road trip, for what is commonly known as J-pouch surgery, an invasive procedure that begins the process of creating a digestive tract.
The surgery is set for Wednesday, and the recovery includes six weeks of no activity, the threat of severe dehydration and the anticipation of significant pain and being sapped of energy.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is the beginning of a new phase in his personal and professional life without ulcerative colitis.
“This is the hardest of the three surgeries,” Diekman said. “I’ve heard from tens of hundreds of people that this one is the worst one. You go all the time. You just feel like crap.
“They’ll cut me back open, the 5-inch scar beneath my belly button. They’ll take my intestine and make a pouch for me, and for nine or 10 weeks we’ll let it heal.”
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., will perform the ileoanal anastomosis surgery, which will begin to restore order to Diekman’s plumbing after his colon was removed in late January.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, surgeons will create “a pouch shaped like the letter J from the end of the small intestine and attached to the anus. An opening is constructed in the abdominal wall (ileostomy) for eliminating waste. The opening is temporary, to allow time for the pouch to heal.”
Diekman will be in the hospital for up to seven days, though his goal is to leave in four, before returning to Texas. He is planning to be at as many Rangers home games as possible, beginning April 20, but he will have to reduce the time he spends at the ballpark.
Rather than showing up at 2 or 2:30 p.m. as he has been, he might not arrive until as late as 6 p.m.
Many people who have gone through his ordeal have reached out to Diekman with warnings about the recovery from the J-pouch surgery, and he’s heard them all. He has also gladly been serving as someone who can bring more awareness to a condition that affects 700,000 Americans. An estimated 1.6 million in the U.S. are affected by inflammatory bowel disease.
Among them is Michael Mauti, an NFL free agent after a few seasons as a special teams ace for the New Orleans Saints. Mauti should be ready for training camp after undergoing his surgeries, and the Saints have interest in re-signing him.
“I knew how many people have been affected by this in their life,” Diekman said. “The stories I’ve heard are amazing.”
Diekman’s teammates are more than understanding of his upcoming schedule change. None of them can relate to how uncomfortable ulcerative colitis made his life each day, and each of them is ready to help him going forward.
Just seeing him around and seeing how badly he is missing baseball has helped them stay hungry.
“He’s a competitive guy,” fellow reliever Tony Barnette said. “Even though he’s not able to compete right now, he has a way of not losing his attitude. His attitude toward the game stays consistent, and that helps us stay consistent. You see him wanting to be out there every night. It helps us stay on edge and stay frosty.
“Hopefully he’s as mentally prepared for it as possible. We’re in his corner. He’s got us to fall back on if needed.”
A third surgery in June will close the opening in Diekman’s abdomen and allow him to begin having normal bowel movements again instead of requiring an ileostomy bag. After two more weeks of recovery time, Diekman expects to begin throwing in early July.
Diekman is targeting an early-August return, but will learn how realistic that is over the next six weeks. He’s hopeful August is realistic after throwing to 60 feet, lifting weights and packing on more weight than he has ever carried at 218 pounds.
“I feel like I could throw right now,” he said. “It just sucks that I have to wait and wait and wait.”
The great unknown is how he’s going to feel free of a disease that has had its hold on him more than half his life. Will he gain weight and keep it on? What adjustments will he have to make on the mound and in getting ready each day?
“It’s going be interesting what the final product is,” Barnette said. “My comment has been he’s going to come back as big as Josh Hamilton. Hopefully he comes back throwing 106.”
Diekman has never pitched professionally without feeling the effects of ulcerative colitis, which causes chronic inflammation of the intestine. There were times he worried that he might need a restroom break during an inning. Most of the time, he was just ornery.
“Now, it’s not even close,” Diekman said. “I feel like I actually get nutrition from food. I can keep weight on. I’m not irritable anymore. I’m not on edge that I might have to go to the bathroom soon. I feel great overall in every aspect.”
Now, he’s looking forward to putting his health issues behind him. The next and most difficult step begins Wednesday.
“I can’t have a bad attitude now,” said Diekman, who got engaged during the off-season. “Not being able to play kind of sucks — it really sucks — but also I can’t wait to know how I feel once this is all over with.
“I’m going to be sore for a while, but I’m going to try to get back on the mound as soon as possible.”
Rangers at Angels
9:05 p.m. Tuesday, FSSW
Rangers LHP Cole Hamels (0-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. Angels LHP Tyler Skaggs (0-1, 8.44)