Clarke Schmidt’s junior season was going along just as he had hoped when he took the mound against Florida on April 20.
The Georgia native was 4-1 with an SEC-best 1.31 ERA, and the Gamecocks were ranked in the top 20.
Yes, USC had dropped a couple of series in a row, but this was a chance to make a statement on the road against a top 10 Gators team and for USC to get back on track.
Schmidt fully expected to finish off his All-American type season by leading South Carolina to Omaha while being drafted in the first round of Monday’s MLB draft.
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Unfortunately for Schmidt and for South Carolina, the weekend trip to Gainesville was a turning point in the season, but not the way the Gamecocks were hoping.
Schmidt left his Thursday night start with arm soreness, which turned out to be a torn ulnar collateral ligament to his right elbow.
He would have to undergo Tommy John surgery and would be out for the rest of the season.
While South Carolina had lost its ace, Schmidt wondered whether he had lost his opportunity to reach his longtime dream of being a high draft pick.
“I’m a 21-year-old kid so, obviously, I freaked out at first. It’s my junior year, and I was in the midst of probably the best year of my career. It’s tough to take that news on,” Schmidt said. “All those thoughts creep in about not being able to play baseball the rest of the year and the draft. It’s a good thing I have a good support staff and family to keep those thoughts out.”
After getting over the initial shock of the injury diagnosis, Schmidt began researching what undergoing Tommy John surgery has done to the draft stock of other potential top picks and received encouraging news.
There are recent cases of pitchers needing Tommy John surgery around draft time and still being first-round picks, including Erick Fedde from UNLV in the 2014 MLB draft and Walker Buehler of Vandy in the 2015 draft.
In addition, Major League Baseball rosters are filled with pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery only to have a long professional career.
“You hear all the successful stories nowadays. ... You’ve just got to treat your rehab the right way. You’ve got to have a good mentality throughout it all, and you should be fine coming through,” Schmidt said. “I did a lot of research on the draft. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and give me positive thoughts. I’ve had a lot of positive things told to me in the past few weeks that keeps my mentality in the right place.”
Some of those positive thoughts have come from teammates who know what Schmidt is going through.
Fellow weekend starter Wil Crowe and midweek starter Cody Morris missed the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, only to bounce back and be key contributors in 2017.
Schmidt said he has leaned on those guys and others who have had the procedure over the past several weeks.
“It gives me comfort knowing they’re still there for me and the team’s still there for me,” he said. “They’ve been supporting me the whole way. From a mental state, I’m doing 100 percent. I’m fine. I’m not negative at all. I’m positive, and I know I’ll come back fine from this.”
Crowe still remembers what the long process of getting back to the mound was like and is willing to help out any way he can.
“You just support him. He’s going through rehab just like I did,” Crowe said. “He’s got questions, ‘When am I throwing? When am I doing this? When can I work out? When can I run?’ You just answer questions for him the same as you always would and support him and be there for him.”
Schmidt’s stock has reportedly dropped slightly but not much.
Baseball America has Schmidt listed as the No. 32 overall prospect, down from the middle of the first-round projections prior to his injury, while D1Baseball has Schmidt at No. 38.
Schmidt is likely to be a Day 1 pick and be selected in one of the first two rounds. At the latest, he should hear his name called early Tuesday in the third round.
“Anything could happen on draft night. I try to stay too much out of the online stuff, but everyone’s saying it’s still hopefully first round or first or second round,” Schmidt said. “That would be awesome.”
And it would allow Schmidt’s tough junior season to end on a positive note.
TV: Monday on MLB Network and MLB.com; continues Tuesday and Wednesday on MLB.com
Of note: The first round consists of 30 picks, 27 regular choices and three compensatory selections.