By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
“Not again. Not again.”
“Please Lord. Not surgery again.”
These were the thoughts running through Danny Winkler’s mind as he was helped to the dugout on April 10, 2016.
He had already missed one full season recovering from Tommy John surgery two years earlier.
Now, just as his Major League career was looking more promising than ever, it was evident another setback was in order.
It was a Sunday afternoon at Turner Field in Atlanta. The host Braves had a 6-5 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the top of the seventh. Winkler was pitching in relief and had a 1-2 count on Randal Grichuk with two outs in the inning.
His next pitch was a slider that missed low.
“Before the end of spring training, my elbow had started to hurt,” Danny recalled. “I thought it was tendinitis and just pitched through it. I did that for a couple weeks. Then I threw that slider to Grichuk and it was much more painful than what I had been experiencing.”
But nothing like his next pitch, which was a cutter.
“It felt like something cracked,” Danny said. “I knew I had broken a bone and it would probably require surgery. I just thought ‘Not again.’ I had worked so hard to get back.”
Understandably, a myriad of thoughts were swirling around in his head.
Is my career over? Is this my last time on a Major League mound?
“There was a rush of emotions all at once,” Danny recalled.
Danny soon discovered he had fractured his right elbow. It was a tough time. Winkler missed the rest of the 2016 season. He didn’t even pick up a baseball again for nine months.
“I really couldn’t do much during the recovery,” he recalled. “I had to let the bone heal. I couldn’t even go out and run. They didn’t want me to put any stress on the elbow.”
But this young man from Effingham never quit or gave up. His passion for the game and determination to continue living his dream proved to be the drive and motivation necessary to work his way back once again.
On August 21, 2017, Danny Winkler took the mound in a Braves uniform. He faced just one batter – Seattle’s Robinson Cano – but that was enough. Danny was back in the Big Leagues.
And things have only gotten better since then. The Braves are one of the surprise teams in baseball. They were 52-42 at the All-Star break, just a half game behind the equally-surprising Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.
Danny has played a key role in the team’s success. He has made 42 appearances out of the bullpen already and sports a 2-0 record with 1 save and a 3.00 ERA.
“Actually, I feel like my stuff is even better now,” Danny said while being interviewed the day after the All-Star Game from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “After two elbow surgeries, I had to change some things mechanically. Then all of a sudden, I started throwing harder.”
His fastball is now clocked at 93-94 mph on a consistent basis. He evens hits 96 occasionally – a number he never hit on the speed gun before.
“I don’t know if it’s the changes in my mechanics, the screw that’s in my arm or divine intervention,” Danny noted. “But ever since coming back, it’s been a great ride.”
Danny, now 28, is the son of David and Brenda Winkler, of Effingham. He is a 2008 graduate of St. Anthony High School. His wife, Camille, the daughter of Tim and Deb Thoele, graduated the same year from Teutopolis High School. They have a nine-month-old son, Declan.
Danny was a Cardinals fan growing up and his favorite player was Ozzie Smith. He remembers at a very young age pretending to be Mark McGwire and capable of hitting 70 home runs.
Ironically, basketball was his first love. He dreamed of playing for Illinois and the Chicago Bulls. But as he got older, he realized he was much better at baseball.
He was a standout player for the St. Anthony Bulldogs. When he wasn’t pitching, he played either center field or right field.
“But I knew pitching was where my future was,” Danny admitted.
During his senior year in high school, a scout for the Baltimore Orioles talked with Danny about a possible future in baseball.
“That was the first moment in my life I began to think I could make this dream a reality; that I could actually play professional baseball,” he recalled.
Following high school, he played two years at Parkland College in Champaign and then committed to the University of Central Florida, where he played one season.
He was actually drafted in 2010 by the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round, but didn’t sign.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready,” Danny explained. “Plus, I wanted to go to UCF and play baseball at the Division I level.”
The following year, the Rockies drafted him in the 20th round and this time he signed.
“That one additional year made a difference,” he said. “I felt like I was ready to get into the system and begin working my way up. I wanted to get to the Big Leagues and pursue my dream.”
He was with the Rockies organization for four seasons, even though his 2014 season was cut short due to the elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He played with the Casper (Wyoming) Ghosts, Asheville (North Carolina) Tourist, Tulsa (Oklahoma) Drillers and Modesto (California) Nuts.
Even though he was coming off the surgery, he was still selected by the Braves in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. He eventually made his Major League debut on Sept. 21, 2015.
“They told me they liked the way I competed,” Danny recalled. “They liked my strikeout numbers and the spin rate on my fastball. They were awesome from the very beginning. It was a blessing for me and my family.”
The Braves did make one significant change. After being a starting pitcher his entire career, the Braves moved him to the bullpen.
“I wanted to be a starter and felt like I had been pretty successful,” Danny noted, referring to his 33-22 record during his minor league career. “But the Braves thought being a reliever would be safer and healthier for my career. I just want to be successful, no matter what I’m doing. However I can help the Braves is fine with me.”
Danny uses primarily three pitches – fastball, slider and cutter.
“I’ve thrown my change-up five times this season and gave up three hits. I decided to scrap that pitch,” he said with a laugh.
“I’m a big believer in the mental side of the game,” Danny continued. “The hitters at this level are really good. You have to be able to deal with adversity. Honestly, I think I’ve become a specialist at overcoming adversity. My desire is to be a good baseball player. I just love to compete.”
Through it all, Danny has had the love and support of his family.
“I have a great family,” he said. “My parents raised me the right way and my grandparents were always there for me. Grandpa Wink (D.A. Winkler) was my biggest fan. He and I talked about life and baseball a lot.
“My wife has also been wonderful,” Danny added. “We’ve been together for 11 years; since our junior year in high school. She’s endured a lot. She picks me up when I’m down and humbles me when necessary.”
His faith is also an important part of his life.
“That’s what helped get me through both injuries,” Danny admitted. “I am so thankful for the many things in my life God has given me. I’m blessed with a beautiful family and I thank Him every day for that. Even if my Major League career goes away, I will always worship Him. I have a God who loves me.”
The Braves are certainly focused on making the postseason. They opened the second half of the season on the road against Washington and Florida. Beginning today (Thursday), they will enjoy a seven-game home stand, with four games against the Dodgers and three against the Marlins.
“The key to the second half of the season is for us to just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Danny said. “We’ve got a great clubhouse. For us, it’s all about the team and what we can do to help the team win. We want to prove everybody wrong. We opened a lot of eyes the first half. Now we need to prove it wasn’t a fluke.”
And Danny is poised to do his part.
“I would like to be a closer someday. As a reliever, that’s the ace of the bullpen,” he said. “But my main goal is being a guy the manager can count on regardless of the situation. No matter what, I want to be the guy that can get the job done.”
Are there lingering effects from the surgeries?
“None at all,” Danny quickly responded. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time. During those long three years, I learned a lot about myself and how to care for myself. Now I’m hoping that pays dividends the rest of my career.”