Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics
Four years ago, Andrew Armstrong came to Ohio State looking to be a star pitcher. He went 28-0 in his high school career and was named Class AA Player of the Year in Virginia to go along with two state championships. He was even drafted late in the MLB, in the 45th round by the Atlanta Braves.
Things have not exactly turned out like Armstrong might have once envisioned, however. The redshirt junior now only comes in during the latter innings of a game to get a left-hander or two out before going back to the bullpen.
But you won’t see Armstrong complaining.
After a promising freshman year that included going 4-3 and having the team’s third-best ERA, Armstrong came into his second year with much excitement. But during a long tossing drill in a late winter practice, he noticed a pain in his shoulder.
“There were throws where it just felt like a sharp pain in my shoulder, and I was like man, this isn’t normal,” Armstrong said. “I’ve had pain before in the past, but this was just something different, like a whole new ballgame of pain.”
Armstrong pitched his whole sophomore year, but went just 2-3 in eight starts with an alarming 11.51 ERA. The injury was hindering Armstrong, but it took him until summer-league baseball after that year to find the problem.
His throwing shoulder had a torn labrum, a piece of cartilage that holds the shoulder joint together.
His mother, Martha Bocock, said finally finding out what was wrong was better than him continuing to struggle.
“You always want the best for your child, and I knew he was very frustrated that he wasn’t doing a very good job,” Bocock said. “So I guess, in a way, I was kind of relieved there was something that perhaps could be fixed, or it would have been the end of his journey.”
During that summer, Bocock said they were set up with Dr. James Andrews through a friend in the Valley League, a summer baseball league Armstrong and several of his teammates play in.
Andrews is one of the best-known orthopedic surgeons in sports, and has operated on professional athletes including Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Roger Clemens and Albert Pujols.
Andrews could not be reached for comment.
Bocock said they were able to set up a meeting within a week, and they flew down to Birmingham, Ala., to Andrews’ office for a Monday appointment.
“He took a look at the MRI, and he said: ‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock. It’s his labrum, and we’re going to go in and fix it,'” Bocock said.
Even with one of the top surgeons operating on Armstrong, a full recovery from such an injury was not guaranteed.
“It’s like a death sentence to pitchers,” Armstrong said. “They said the rehab is going to be rough. It’s going to be the worst six months of your life after you come out.”
The recovery length for a labrum tear depends on the type of tear and the athlete. It took Armstrong more than a year to get completely back to normal. He said he could not even move his arm for the first month after surgery.
“You think about throwing again, and it was just weird, I had to learn how to throw again,” Armstrong said. “It wasn’t as much frustrating as it was getting over barriers.”
Those barriers made Armstrong a medical redshirt his junior season. Restricted to watching from the dugout, and unable to help the team, Armstrong struggled at times.
“I got lost from baseball last year,” Armstrong said. “I mean, I cared about the team and the guys, but I didn’t matter to the team in the aspect of helping the team win. I was just there to cheer them on, and I’ve never had that role in my life.”
Bocock looked at it as a learning process for her son.
“I guess I look at it as maybe a chapter of his life that was building character and integrity,” Bocock said. “He would probably say, ‘Oh, that’s a crock of crap.'”
After finally getting back to throwing off the mound again, Armstrong began to work with the new coaching staff at OSU, including assistant coach Mike Stafford, who works with the pitchers. Stafford said the first goal was to get Armstrong’s body and arm back into his freshman-year shape.
For Armstrong, that meant learning to throw hard again.
“The whole rehab with throwing and stuff was fine, but as soon I would get on the mound I was throwing like 80 mph I guess you could say,” Armstrong said. “(Stafford) was like, ‘Armstrong if you’re going to want to pitch here, you’re going to have to get it through your mind that you can throw hard.'”
He eventually learned to throw hard once again, but moving him back to starter was a move the coaching staff did not want to risk.
“When you’re coming back from a surgery like Andrew has, you don’t want to put too much wear and tear on the arm,” Stafford said. “So a relieving role is more conducive to coming back from arm surgery than a starting role would be, throwing 80–100 pitches every week.”
The move has treated Armstrong and the team well so far this season. Armstrong leads the Big Ten in appearances and games in relief, with 24. He is holding opponents to a team-low .200 batting average, and is third in team strikeouts with 28.
His teammates, such as senior outfielder Brian DeLucia, who came in with Armstrong as freshmen and plays summer league with him, are just happy to see him back again.
“He’s worked his way back through a lot of trials with his arm and everything,” DeLucia said. “I give him credit because there’s a lot of guys that don’t bounce back from that injury.”
Armstrong made three appearances in the team’s sweep of Michigan this weekend, which moved it into third place in the Big Ten. His part in two of those games was to get one left-handed batter out before re-exiting the game.
“His role is to get left-handers out, and he’s got a good enough breaking ball and a hard enough fastball to get the guys thinking up there,” Stafford said. “It’s very hard left on left to get a good swing off of him.”
Armstrong said he likes now being a reliever because he always has to be focused and can help the outcome of every game.
Although Armstrong might not get the glory of being a starter, his ability as a specialist makes professional baseball a realistic goal for him.
“A left-hander that throws up to 90 mph and that can spin a breaking ball definitely has a chance,” Stafford said. “If he keeps doing what he’s doing next year, he is going to get an opportunity by some club to play at the next level.”
Armstrong is not worried about that right now, though. He is just glad to be pitching and helping the team win again.
“The only thing I knew coming in here, especially from where I’m from, is any way you can help the team is important,” Armstrong said. “I don’t care if I was a bat boy, as long as I was helping the team do what they needed to do.”