Tommy John surgery.
They are probably the three most meaningful words that any pitcher ever hears in his career – equal parts frightening and encouraging.
Former Greenbrier ace Nolan Belcher knew those words were coming his way the minute he felt something snap like a rubber band in his left arm in January 2011. It was his first live session in the first intra-squad game, and he knew immediately that his junior season for the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks was over before it started.
“I tried to throw two more pitches after that and the pain was just unbearable,” Belcher said. “I had to walk off the mound. I was pretty certain right then that there was a serious problem.”
For a guy who had never experienced anything outside of the ordinary soreness that every pitcher goes through, it was a devastating jolt. But by the time Dr. Christopher Mazoue’ of South Carolina’s sports medicine staff grafted a piece of his hamstring into his left arm in a process professionally known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, Belcher was already feeling better about his future.
“We have quite a few guys on our roster who have been through this process and come back strong, so I was fairly confident I’d be able to return,” Belcher said. “Everybody was really encouraging and we have a great training staff who really did a good job with me.”
That this procedure has become so routine in the 38 years since Dr. Frank Jobe successfully performed it on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John is remarkable. Jobe estimated John’s chances of recovery at 1-in-100 back then, and John ran with his one percent chance to pitch in the majors for 13 more years after returning in 1976. He retired at age 46 with 288 career wins.
Now the full recovery success rate for athletes undergoing Tommy John surgery is around 90 percent, with some pitchers throwing stronger than ever within two years of the operation. Among the many success stories are past and present Braves aces John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.
Of course it’s not an overnight process. Belcher went on a regimented rehabilitation program for 10 months, easing his way back with small tosses after four months before eventually throwing off the mound.
“It’s definitely a tough process mentally,” said Belcher of having to resist rushing back to doing what he does best. It wasn’t so much relearning how to pitch like he did when he went 47-2 at Greenbrier or earned all-freshman status in the Southeastern Conference as it was re-acclimating.
“Maybe just the aspect of going out there in a live game and competing,” he said. “After throwing for a couple of months it kind of came back naturally and right now I’m good to go.”
Although he’s back in the Gamecocks’ bullpen, his coaches aren’t pushing him to do too much. He saw his first action against Elon last week, pitching one scoreless inning of relief.
“I don’t think they’ll try to extend me too much right now,” he said. “They just see how much they can get out of me and as long as it’s feeling good I’m going to throw.”
It is an understatement to say it felt good to get back onto the mound for the first time in almost two years last Friday.
“It was definitely exciting,” he said. “I felt almost like a freshman out there again, like it was my first time pitching in college. My teammates were definitely excited to see me go back out there and I’m sure they were happy for me.”
It got even better this week against Presbyterian, when Belcher came on in the fifth inning of a tight game. He pitched 2⅓ scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and striking out three. He was credited with his first win since May 11, 2010.
“I was just trying to go out there and throw strikes and get it to the back of our bullpen so they could finish it off,” Belcher said. “I wasn’t really concerned about getting the win, just trying to keep our team in it so we could win the game. It feels good and hopefully I can continue to keep contributing and help our team win and hopefully we can have another good year this year.”
What Belcher wants most is to be a part of another College World Series run. While he’s been on the team, he hasn’t been a part of either of the Gamecocks’ consecutive postseason championship drives.
“It was exciting for my teammates and I was really happy for all of them and they worked hard and deserved it, but once again it was difficult to miss out on it,” he said.
The road to recovery isn’t finished for the diminutive 5-foot-8, 155-pound lefty with the sweeping curveball. Most guys don’t reach full strength until 16 to 18 months after surgery, which would be right around postseason time.
“I feel like I’m getting more confident each time I go out there and getting stronger each time I go out there,” Belcher said.
That’s good news for him and the Gamecocks (7-0), who start getting serious this weekend with a whistle-stop three-game set against archrival Clemson that starts tonight in Charleston, S.C., before continuing at each school Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
“I hope so,” said Belcher of the chance to see action against the hated Tigers. “We’ll see how it works out. It’s a big weekend for us and we’re excited to go up against Clemson.”
Regardless, those three magic words have weaved new life into Belcher’s arm and instilled confidence in his future.
“Not often that too many people have two surgeries on an arm after having one Tommy John surgery,” he said. “It’s feeling strong and I think everything will work out.”