Back on the mound after Tommy John surgery

| Senior Sports Editor

WUSTL Photo Services
Tommy John surgery, the reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow, is a common procedure performed on baseball players across the world at all levels of competition. For one Washington University pitcher, junior Bryce Hrovat, recovery from the surgery has been a long and painful process.

Many pitchers, after undergoing the operation, seem like a different pitcher the next time they toe the rubber. Some never pitch again.

“Before you really get back, if you get back…the rehab and the time to get back into the show is probably now 12 months or a little less. Ordinarily, it’s an 18-month process,” baseball head coach Ric Lessmann said.

Hrovat started feeling the pain at the end of his senior season in high school.

“It started with gradual elbow pain…but it was something you could throw through, so I just didn’t worry about it,” Hrovat said. “I was pitching lights out [in one game], and then in the seventh inning, I went out, got one out, and then against the next batter, I threw a ball that went like 40 feet and just absolutely bounced it…I didn’t really know anything was bad at that point. I didn’t feel anything terrible.”

In the days following this game, it was discovered that Hrovat’s UCL was partially torn. An ineffective attempt at resting the elbow led to the decision to have the surgery.

After getting the procedure done at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in October 2007, Hrovat, a native of Naperville, Ill., started the first phase of his recovery.

“Most people are fine after [11 to 13 weeks of rehab]…but I still had a lot of pain in my elbow,” Hrovat said. “After trying to throw for about six weeks, I wasn’t really making a ton of progress and I said, ‘This really doesn’t feel much better. Something is still wrong.’”

His ulnar nerve had detached and was inflamed, requiring a second surgery in May. By the time he had fully healed from both surgeries and was able to pitch again, it was June 2008.

“A lot of his rehab went on during the fall, when we didn’t have games, so I think once he got out to pitch last spring, it was just one big surprise to see that he was pretty much back at full strength,” senior pitcher Jeremy Rogoff said.

Rogoff, who also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2006, helped ease Hrovat along the recovery process.

“When we both went through it, we both were really worried that [the surgery] wasn’t going to work out,” Rogoff said. “[Hrovat] just needed somebody to constantly reassure him that his arm was eventually going to heal and he was going to be able to throw as well, if not better, than he did before the surgery.”

Though Hrovat needed no additional surgeries, pain in his arm, elbow and shoulder continued.

“Sophomore year, I was pitching in games…and I was telling myself, ‘This kills. This can’t be right.’ [Rogoff told me], ‘No, the pain is normal,’” Hrovat said. “I was able to just keep telling myself, ‘no, it’s fine. You’re stuck with it. You can throw through it.’”

Gradually, the pain and soreness departed.

In his two full seasons of pitching, Hrovat has posted a 5.13 ERA and a 9-2 record. In his last start, on April 18, he struck out 14 batters en route to a 9-1 win over Knox College.

“With Hrovat, I still think he may be a little bit better even next year,” Lessmann said. “He’s had a nice year for us, definitely better than he was last year…so I have high hopes. We keep pitch counts, but he gets up around 100 [pitches], and he’s still throwing okay. He doesn’t seem to have any aftermath [from the surgery].”

While he has been successful the past two years, Hrovat, a left-handed pitcher, is unsure if the surgery had any effect on his mechanics.

“I’d like to see videotape of me [pitching] beforehand and afterwards,” he said. “I haven’t really looked at it too closely. I have always thrown a little goofy, maybe it’s the reason why I’ve been effective. Just the way I throw is not natural, so it works out.”

Hrovat’s next start is projected to be on Sunday, May 2, at DePauw University. The first pitch is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

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