AS UNEXPECTED AS it was, the inevitable happened to left-handed pitcher Nolan Belcher in January of 2011. Belcher delivered a two-out, two-strike slider to Austin Ashmore in the first intra-squad scrimmage of spring practice.
Something did not feel right in his left elbow. He attempted to throw two more pitches, then walked off the mound.
“The pain was too unbearable,” Belcher says. “I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t straighten my arm. It felt like somebody was stabbing a knife in my elbow. It was the worst pain I’ve ever dealt with.”
Thirteen months later, Belcher is likely to return to the mound this weekend with a relief appearance against Elon at Carolina Stadium. Belcher joins an ever-growing number of pitchers — at all levels of baseball — who experience what is commonly known as Tommy John surgery, but in medical terms is called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.
These days, pitchers talk among themselves about “when” they will face Tommy John surgery, not “if” the possibility exists. On USC’s roster alone, four pitchers have undergone the surgery. In addition to Belcher, junior left-hander Adam Westmoreland missed the 2010 season following surgery. Junior left-hander Tyler Webb and redshirt freshman right-hander Drake Thomason went under the knife before they entered USC.
When Dr. Frank Jobe first performed the experimental surgery on major-league pitcher Tommy John in 1974, Jobe placed the odds of complete recovery at one in 100. Today, the out-patient procedure has become routine and an estimated 85 to 92 percent of all pitchers return to full strength.
There is every reason to believe Belcher’s left elbow will be as strong as ever and free of pain, although to reach that point might take another six months, according to Brainard Cooper, USC’s associate athletics trainer.
“It’s almost universal that (recovery) is a minimum of 12 months,” Cooper says. “They don’t think you really get that special ‘it’ factor that made you an elite pitcher for 18 to 24 months.
“You’re physically healed, but you don’t get that special something back until that extended period of time. You can have your full range of motion. You can be good and strong, but it just takes awhile to recover.”
Belcher earned fan-favorite status almost from the time he arrived on campus, mostly because he plays the role of the ultimate underdog. Even when he was recruited out of Augusta, assistant coaches kept telling USC coach Ray Tanner that perhaps Belcher was too small to pitch in the SEC.
“We’ve got to have this guy,” Tanner recalls saying of Belcher, who posted a 47-2 high school record despite generously being listed at 5-foot-8 and weighing a mere 155 pounds. “I don’t care about 5-foot-whatever. The guy keeps winning. We need to get this guy if we can.”
Belcher’s craftiness on the mound — mostly because of his reliance on a big, slow breaking ball — endeared him to USC fans as a freshman, as did his complete-game victory against Mississippi and his 11-strikeout performance against Georgia.
His role was reduced as a sophomore, but few doubted he would be a contributor on the mound for his final two seasons. Then came the injury and surgery. Normally, a forearm tendon is used to reconstruct the elbow, but Belcher’s was deemed to be too short. So, doctors culled a tendon from his hamstring to use in his elbow.
Over the past three decades, physicians have modified and perfected a rehabilitation process that now is used universally in the baseball community. Cooper will print a copy of the week-by-week schedule at the asking. The rehabilitation begins with the immediate post-operative phase (zero to three weeks) and moves to the intermediate phase (weeks four to seven), advanced strengthening phase (weeks eight to 14) and return to activity phase (weeks 13 to 32).
In the latter phase, Belcher began by making two sets of 15 throws about 10 feet off a wall. Four months from surgery, Belcher had increased his throws to 45 feet, then to 60 feet. At 10 months, he was allowed to throw off a mound.
“The testosterone effect screws everything up in this world, including a baseball player’s — an athlete’s — recovery because they want to prove themselves so badly that a lot of times they’ll overdo it,” Cooper says. “We have to put a tight rein on them.”
The rehabilitation becomes as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Belcher, Cooper and Tanner agree on that.
“They need constant reassurance,” Tanner says. “Medically, you know it’s going to work. That’s the good news. But they get away from the game. They miss the game. They have depressing days. The rehab gets long.
“They don’t feel a part of things, even though they are with their teammates all the time. It’s a real challenge, especially for the young guys. That’s the most difficult part.”
Belcher says he was helped along over the past 13 months by encouragement from teammates Webb and Westmoreland, both of whom knew the ups and mostly downs of the rehabilitation experience.
Now, this weekend, Belcher says there is certain to be even more anxiety as he returns to the mound to face live competition. He has read of pitchers who come back stronger after Tommy John surgery. You never know, Belcher says, his fastball might eventually touch 90 mph.