“I was a little nervous,” recalls 6-foot6-inch Virginia Tech pitcher Andrew McDonald of his college debut. A freshman in 2014, McDonald had a bright future ahead of him with Hokie athletics. The following year, McDonald felt something wrong with his elbow while warming up in the bullpen, and decided to refrain from pitching the rest of the season. During the off-season, he tried to get back into pitching, but the pain didn’t subside.
Nic Enright, a right-handed pitcher for Virginia Tech was drafted by the New York Mets out of high school. He decided to play college baseball before pursuing a Major League career, even though his fastball topped out over 90-miles-per-hour. It was late April of 2016 when he found himself in so much pain that he couldn’t even lift his backpack. Enright didn’t experience the “pop” in his elbow that some pitchers report, if was more of a gradual regression, he recalls. “It started off as a dull pain in my elbow and eventually progressed into the sharp, stabbing pain,” he explains.
Both Enright and McDonald experienced the rupturing on their ulnar collateral ligaments (UCL). In both cases, reconstruction was required if they wanted to return to the mound. McDonald recalls the “constant ache” he felt around his arm. “I would throw some pitches, and as soon as I would release the ball, it would hurt.” Many pitchers also report loss of control over the ball, or the feeling of “pushing” or “forcing” the ball instead of throwing it.
McDonald chose nationally-renowned orthopedic surgeon Timothy Kremchek, M.D. of Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. Dr. Kremchek has recently performed Tommy John surgeries on MLB pitchers Felix Doubront (Oakland A’s) and Homer Bailey (Cincinnati Reds), but many others, Bill Bray and Todd Coffey, to name two, have trusted Dr. Kremchek with their baseball careers.
The surgery that used to take four hours or more is now so efficient that it is performed in just under one hour. At the Ambulatory Surgery Center at Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, parents, and in some cases coaches or agents, can watch the surgery from a viewing room.
A common misconception is that Tommy John surgery actually improves a pitcher’s strength and ability to throw. While this is patently false, many doctors acknowledge that it is the physical therapy and recovery that can bring a pitcher back to their peak levels of play.
Poor conditioning and overuse are the two biggest culprits of UCL injuries. Improper technique is also a contributor in many cases. In an effort to protect their players, coaches and athletic governing organizations institute pitch counts and inning limits. With UCL injuries, however, it can happen because of a single pitch, or over a long period of time. There is no magic way to prevent pitchers from damaging their ligaments.
Although the surgery takes less than an hour, the recovery an take up to 18-months. For most college and professional athletes, recovery from Tommy John surgery will be around a year. It is a grueling year of intensive therapy and very, very hard work. You ultimately have to re-teach your body how to throw.
For McDonald and Enright, it has been a hard obstacle to overcome. Recovery “was a very long process,” recalls McDonald. “Not being able to play baseball when that’s all I’ve ever played, it was tough. Looking back on it I think it’s made me a better person and pitcher.”
Their coach recalls they are “Pretty militant when it comes to doing their rehab,” reporting that they are in the training room every day. With dedication and commitment like this, the future is bright for both of these young pitchers.