He won’t hesitate. He never has.
Wil Crowe never hesitated to dedicate his life to pitching, never hesitated to choose South Carolina. He didn’t hesitate to tell other schools no when they got involved, told the pro teams the same and definitely didn’t hesitate when he was named a weekend starter as a freshman.
There he’ll be, toeing the rubber next Saturday as he prepares to throw his first live pitch in two years. Crowe says it won’t be at the back of his mind, but how could it not be?
His rebuilt right elbow, the key to his collegiate success and future fortune, feels great. He’s been his usual self, better even, in the long road back from Tommy John surgery. Velocity’s fiery, off-speed’s tighter, release point steady as a mother’s love. He has been checked and cleared and examined and OK’d so many times his daily routine is a series of clipboards.
But there has to be that slight thread of doubt, doesn’t there? The first time he rears back, summoning the lightning of his Thunder-God fastball? The first time where he, one of baseball’s best amateur prospects, faces the first of hundreds of batters who want to see just how great the great Wil Crowe really is?
Will that tender string inside his elbow that meant his past, means his future and caused nearly 24 months of wondering if he’d be one of the many that came all the way back from a once-radical surgery, hold up?
Crowe doesn’t hesitate.
“I’m good,” he says.
‘Here are your options’
He’d never been hurt on a diamond. One knee was scoped for football, the other for basketball, but the back, shoulders, arm, all the biggest parts of a pitcher’s success, had been Greek-sculpted throughout a magnificent high school career and a Freshman All-American season at USC.
Something didn’t feel right as a sophomore. Crowe was giving up nearly five earned runs per game and the bite, the nastiness on his pitches, just wasn’t there.
He hurt, for the first time. And he realized, like all pitchers do, that pain in the shoulder or elbow carries the possibility that the last pitch you threw could have been your last, ever, because your arm isn’t meant to throw that way that hard.
“Me and his mom both met him the next week, and he had went to the team hospital there and he showed us all the pictures,” said father Tim Crowe, a former college player. “We had a sit-down with Chad (Holbrook) and Chad kind of walked us through the options. ‘We can try and pitch, or we can try to line up some surgeries.’ ”
The Crowes knew what that meant. Tommy John surgery has become nearly routine since it was first performed, and there’s a 90 percent success rate.
There is that other 10 percent, though, which meant all Crowe worked for was in jeopardy. His dream, his livelihood, now rested on a scalpel and God’s will.
“I think even then, part of Wil wanted to try,” Tim said, “but he knew going into it he’d been having some problems and feeling funny, so at that point, it was, ‘Let’s go on and make it happen.’ ”
“It’s usually a 10-12 month process before you’re throwing live again,” USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said. “Some guys have thrown at 9-10 months. And sometimes it’s 18 months before a guy really gets back some of the feel and that extra gear.”
The Crowes asked the best, Dr. James Andrews, to perform the surgery. Within three days, he was moving the repaired arm; within a week, he was in Columbia going through therapy.
“Of course you always have concern, but from a standpoint if anybody’s going to do the work and if anyone’s going to physically be a good specimen to start out with in rehab, it’s him,” Meyers said.
Crowe would not hesitate to do anything the doctors and therapists advised. It was as much a part of his schedule as brushing his teeth.
‘I have a number’
Crowe was told, and could do the math, that he probably wouldn’t pitch in 2016. It wasn’t going to be worth it, even if he was cleared, to blow an entire season of eligibility for a few games.
The pros would still be interested.
“He had a number (dollar amount), just like he did in high school,” Tim said. “But he wasn’t afraid to come back. Through the whole process he said, ‘Dad, I came here, I’ve got to finish.’ He felt 100 percent he was going back to school, to finish his degree, and finish what he started.”
The stony non-hesitation to come back despite a 21st-round selection immediately gave Holbrook and Meyers a weekend starter for 2017 – if Crowe was what he was before the injury.
“I thought he’d thrown his last game at South Carolina just because he’s so well thought-of by the professional scouts,” Holbrook said. “But Wil was very steadfast in saying, ‘I’m not going out like this.’ He loves this program, he loves this university and he wants to go out on a good note.”
Rehab stunk. One throwing session that resulted in soreness was enough to get the doctors re-involved. Everything was clear but missing the season, knowing he couldn’t help his team, was agonizing.
“I think last year it was tough on him mentally, but he never called,” Tim said. “The very first game of the season, he said he was going to miss it. After that, he kept it to himself.”
Time in the weight room. Time in the bullpen. Trying on every pitch to not do too much, to stick to the prescribed schedule, when all he wanted was to be out there, pawing the mound, snarling and rocketing an 0-2 heater past the sniveling hitter.
“It was a little frustrating for him go through some of the numerous reps,” Meyers said. “He stuck to it and we had the luxury of time on our side.”
No pro ball. No rehab.
The fastball felt lively and clocked a couple of miles quicker. The curve and changeup had more dip. Crowe looked stronger, more powerful.
“He told me, ‘Dad, my last game of summer ball, that was the first time I felt like, ‘Hey, I’m back,’ ” Tim said.
Those wonderful words – “You can turn it up now” – had Crowe blazing away at batters and resembling every bit of the No. 11 draft prospect he’s listed as by Baseball America. No pain, no trouble as the arm whipped horsehide at the plate like he it owed him money.
“His changeup’s better, his curveball’s better, his two-seam fastball’s better,” Meyers said. “From a stuff standpoint, he’s a better pitcher right now.”
Holbrook announced his weekend rotation and Crowe was the Saturday starter, replacing Braden Webb between Clarke Schmidt and Adam Hill. He’ll be out there in six days, ready to resume his path to stardom.
All eyes are on him. Fans, to see if he can be the piece USC missed last year when it fell two wins short of Omaha. Dad, watching his boy do the job he was put on this planet to do. Coach, rewarding the trust his player had in him by putting him back in the spot the injury vacated. Scouts, charting if their franchise wants to make Crowe a franchise player.
He’ll be on a pitch count, as all of USC’s pitchers are in their first starts, but around 10 percent less than the others. But in terms of preparation, of strength, of mentality, Crowe is as ready as he was before his first start as a freshman.
“Just that anything that comes my way, I can get it done, no matter what,” Crowe said, describing his motivation. “Nothing’s too hard for me to do as long as I believe in the process.”
Just do it.
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USC players among Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects for this summer’s MLB draft:
11. Wil Crowe
RHP; 6-2, 250; Junior
2016 stats: Did not play
17. Clarke Schmidt
RHP; 6-1, 205; Junior
2016 stats: 9-5, 3.40 ERA, 129 Ks
35. Tyler Johnson
RHP; 6-2, 225; Junior
2016 stats: 3-2, 2.42 ERA, 59 Ks
86. Alex Destino
OF/DH; 6-2, 225; Junior
2016 stats: .321, 10 HR, 59 RBI