Adam Niemeyer was making the second appearance of his collegiate career last season when he knew something was wrong.
“I threw a curveball and I just knew it wasn’t good when I threw that pitch. I tried to throw again in another game, but it just kept getting worse and worse, so I got an MRI and found out that I had to have surgery,” the Ohio State redshirt freshman right-hander said.
The procedure that Niemeyer had to undergo was ulnar collateral reconstruction surgery, commonly known as Tommy John surgery. It is an operation where a damaged ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, and it is becoming almost commonplace for pitchers.
Last season, more than 25 major league pitchers required the operation. This year, over 10 have already gone under the knife.
For Niemeyer, the elbow problems began during his junior year of high school. After a summer to rest it, however, he felt no discomfort — that is until a game at Oregon on March 7, 2014, when the pain returned.
He made one more appearance six days later against Siena after the fateful one in Oregon. In that outing, he gave up four unearned runs. After that night, he was shut down before undergoing the procedure on April 9, 2014.
“It was pretty disappointing, just because I was coming off my best outing of the year, really felt like I was contributing to the team, and then hearing that news was just really devastating,” Niemeyer said.
Jason Good, the athletic trainer for the OSU baseball team, was tasked with bringing Niemeyer back to full strength.
“It’s a pretty long process, as you can imagine,” Good said. “Prior to the ‘80s, you were done, but now we’ve kind of developed a rehab progression where we start off with just range of motion, just moving the joints to get them going, to strengthening the shoulder, elbow, wrist flexors, and now really we’re starting to get even further, to where we’re working from the ground up, and almost rebuilding an athlete.”
Good said the timetable to return is set at 12 months from the date of surgery, with a couple of months on either side depending on the success of the rehab.
For Niemeyer, it was on the quicker side, as he made his return to the diamond with a scoreless inning against Pittsburgh on Feb. 15 — just over 10 months after the surgery.
“I could tell he was down a little bit, because I knew he wanted to be out there with us, especially after a good outing against Oregon, and then he finds out he can’t pitch the rest of the year,” sophomore outfielder Ronnie Dawson, who was roommates with Niemeyer last year, said. “But he handled it really well. He wanted to get the surgery right away, start the rehab and now he’s back here.”
Niemeyer said the support of fellow Tommy John recipients — junior infielder Jacob Bosiokovic and sophomore right-hander Yianni Pavlopoulos — a select group they call “The Zipper Club,” helped him cope with his rehab and recovery.
But more than anything, it was the Minster, Ohio, product’s hunger to return to the mound and help his team toward its goal of making the NCAA tournament that drove him.
“It’s good to go out there and contribute to the team, help the team win,” Niemeyer said. “That was the hardest part last year, just watching from the sidelines, not really being able to go out there and help the guys.”
After six appearances out of the bullpen to start the season, OSU coach Greg Beals handed Niemeyer the ball for his first collegiate start — a start that just so happened to come against a team that was ranked No. 4 in the nation at the time in Louisville on April 14.
Niemeyer responded masterfully, tossing five shutout innings and only allowing two hits to guide OSU’s 2-0 upset victory.
He then made another start a week later, a 6-3 victory over Morehead State, before returning to the bullpen to toss three scoreless innings of relief against Illinois last weekend.
Good said he was not surprised to see the right-hander come back with a vengeance based on his work to get back following the surgery.
“Adam’s doing really well. He was a good foundation,” Good said. “He’s kind of the model of, ‘All right, if you have somebody who’s going to get hurt, this is the foundation that you want to work with,’ because he has a good structure, he works hard and he’s driven to want to be back.”
While Good said that it usually takes about two years for a pitcher to feel like they did before the surgery, Niemeyer, just over a year removed from the operation, said he feels he is already at that point.
“I think I am (100 percent). I feel pretty good,” Niemeyer said. “I still have things I have to work on. I think my control is what I have to focus on to get that back to where it was, but arm-wise, I feel pretty good.”
Niemeyer and the Buckeyes are set to close out their home schedule with a three-game series against Maryland from May 8-10. First pitch is set for 6:35 p.m., 3:05 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.