Stephen Ridings’ injury was worse than Yankees fans thought

If anyone could’ve truly been considered a “fan favorite” in an otherwise depressing 2021 Yankees season, it was reliever Stephen Ridings, who rose from the ranks of substitute teaching to find a spot in the bullpen tossing in the upper ’90s by midsummer.

Ridings was a prototypical red-headed everyman who just so happened to whip a fastball in the general direction of the zone. His MLB debut was a mop-up appearance against the down-and-out Orioles, but he still sparkled.

Only a few days later, he was called upon to nail down important late-innings work against the White Sox in Chicago, holding down the ChiSox in a 5-3 win on Aug. 15 … which would ultimately be his final outing of the season.

As quickly as he arrived, he was already gone, and the situation remained far from clarified when Spring Training 2022 rolled around. Ridings was officially on the shelf with a shoulder issue, described only in the vaguest possible terms whenever it was mentioned. Obviously, it seemed quite bad. Most publicly undiagnosed ailments are.

Ridings is now almost kind of sort of back, though. A few weeks after he started making Twitter cameos again (with a few unfortunate spelling errors baked in), the right-hander is reportedly facing live hitters and preparing for a rehab assignment, presumably before the minor-league season ends in late Sept.

With his return to action came some clarity from Matt Blake and Co. on the shoulder issues — which, spoiler alert, extended to his back and nearly created the need for an unpredictable surgical procedure.

Yankees’ Stephen Ridings could make it back to MLB after avoiding thoracic outlet surgery

The Yankees have already relied on more bullpen depth than they probably anticipated touching this year, tossing out flyers to Luke Bard and Anthony Banda while promoting Greg Weissert to make an impact down the stretch.

Ridings would be a wild card at this point, sure, but he’d come with slightly more familiarity attached to his name than even Ron Marinaccio did early in the year.

There’s a hurdle still to be climbed, though. According to Blake, Ridings’ issues nearly got bad enough to require thoracic outlet surgery to resolve them. That’s the procedure that essentially ended the careers of Josh Beckett, Matt Harvey and Phil Hughes, among others.

“It was a host of shoulder stuff that we were trying to pinpoint and some back stuff, too,” Blake added. “So it was kind of a moving target for a little while, largely around the shoulder.”

Blake’s latest comments come after the pitching coach told NJ Advance Media a few weeks ago that the 27-year-old flamethrower nearly needed thoracic outlet surgery. During spring training, months after he was added to the 40-man roster for the first time, Ridings told Inside The Pinstripes that he slipped a disk in the offseason, a shoulder injury that kept him from contributing during his first big-league camp.

Ridings coming back to help in Sept. and Oct. wouldn’t be quite as unpredictable a godsend as his initial rise from substitute teaching, but it would come pretty close.

The Yankees, firmly stuck in experimentation mode as they flail around to find depth, would welcome him with open arms once again.