“He needs Tommy John surgery” is one of the most recognizable phrases in sports. If a fan hears those words, they know exactly what that entails.
It’s unfortunately one of the most common injuries among baseball players, and pitchers especially. From the best of the best in Major League Baseball to so many high school pitchers around the country, it’s an injury many have to go through to be able to continue playing the game they love.
Danville Braves starting pitcher Matt Rowland was taken in the 11th round of the draft in 2016. He reported to Orlando in mid-to-late June after being selected in May. Prior to being drafted, Rowland pitched in the state championship game for his high school team in Georgia. That was the last game he threw until June 20, 2018.
“I actually got hurt in our state championship game in high school before the draft and I didn’t know it,” Rowland recalled. “I didn’t throw leading up until the draft, went down to Florida after the draft. The second day out throwing, I couldn’t throw the ball 90 feet, so I went and got an MRI and my ligament was completely ripped off my bone.”
Rowland didn’t even touch a baseball for seven months after the surgery. The surgery happened in early-to-mid July. After the surgery, Rowland was driven to get back on the mound, but after hearing that he would need the surgery, that’s when he doubted his future.
“I didn’t really know what to think. I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to throw a ball again because I know some guys don’t come back,” he said. “I know a lot do, but there are always what-ifs. What if I can’t throw a ball again? What if it doesn’t stop hurting? What if I can’t get back all the way or I can’t get my pitches back?”
THE COMEBACK TRAIL
When he was down in Orlando, Rowland was not the only pitcher rehabbing and coming back from Tommy John surgery. He said having those guys, some of them being older than he was, motivated him to keep working through the grueling rehab process.
“(They would) just push me every day because they’re out there with me every day and one of them was like a month ahead of me so he was kind of in the same boat as me,” Rowland said. “He was working harder because was an older guy so I was just trying to keep up with him.”
When he finally was cleared to throw a baseball again, he basically started from scratch in terms of his conditioning. He said his mechanics have improved since in the surgery, but when he first started throwing he said he didn’t believe he’d ever be able to pitch as a starter.
“I think the mental part of it was the beginning and then physically after when I started getting off the mound throwing bullpens and I was throwing 25 pitches and I would be gassed,” he said. “I even told our pitching coach in the beginning of the year… I threw two innings one day and I said there’s no way I can throw more than that. He said, ‘just wait until the end of the year. You’ll be throwing five to six,’ and that’s what I’m doing here.”
Rowland made his professional debut in Danville on June 20 against the Pulaski Yankees. Rowland worked four innings and allowed two runs on two hits, one being a home run, and struck out two with no walks. Rowland said he remembers the day itself, but couldn’t tell you anything about the game or how he worked hitters.
“I just tried not to think about it too much. I was just excited to be here, “he said. “I just tried to relax and think about what I had been doing before, not trying to change anything and just staying with what had worked before and all the mechanics and stuff that I changed at extended and in spring training so just trying to stick with that. I was pumped. My first inning wasn’t too great, but after that I kind of settled in. It was good after that.
“It was weird. Even just throwing a pitch and getting a reaction from the crowd was weird. I don’t know why, but it was just weird to me when it happened,” he continued. “I don’t remember anything… I think it was just so wound up. I had so much adrenaline going. I kind of blacked out… If I had to throw against that team again I’d have to restart because I don’t think I’d remember a single batter.”
Rowland got his first professional win August 10 at home against Kingsport. He threw five innings and allowed one earned run on one hit and he struck out five. He’s had a few bumps in the road this season, but even in the tough games, no game will be tougher than that first game back on the bump.
“That was the most effort I’ve had to put into pitching in a long time, probably four years,” he said.
MOVING PAST THE INJURY
Rowland said he’s changed his mechanics and that they are “10 times better than they were.” He said other than that, he still approaches pitching the same as his did before the surgery.
“I didn’t change anything except my changeup because I just never really had a changeup,” he said.
One of the hardest things about coming back from a major injury is the lingering thought that the injury will return. Rowland said he’s not worried about that. He said he feels it once in a while, but that usually only happens when he isn’t using his proper mechanics.
“I don’t really think about it when I’m out there, but if I mess up my mechanics I can feel it so it kind of helps to make sure I’m doing the right things,” he said.
Now that’s he’s recovered and is back on the mound once every five or so days, Rowland has transitioned from being injured to being a mentor for younger players that are going through a similar struggle.
“I actually had a kid that DM’d me on Instagram last year and said he had just had Tommy John and was looking for someone to guide him through it,” he said. “I talked to him every few weeks, call him, see how it was going. He asked me a ton of questions.
“It definitely helps having a role model there and someone who’s been through it to talk you through it and mentally just keep you sane because it’s an awful feeling.”
Now he said he talks to a number of people and helps them get through their rehab and it’s something he’s really enjoyed doing.
“I love doing it. I’ve had a few guys that I talk to that are going through it still that I keep up with all the time,” he said. “It’s kind of like I beat it, I’m passed it now who can I help to get through it for them because I know how much of a struggle it was for me.”
PURSUING THE DREAM
When Rowland was a kid, he watched and rooted for the Atlanta Braves. It was a shock to him when that same team was the one calling him on draft day back in 2016.
“I’d pick them over who ever. It was just awesome it happened to be them out of everybody, so I was excited,” he said.
Although he was a Braves fan, he grew up idolizing the players his father coached at the high school. He spent a lot of his days growing up with his dad at the ball field and watching the high school team play.
“My dad, he’s always been our high school coach, so I started playing when I was four. I grew up at the ball field, going to mow the grass with him every day and take care of the field and watching them play. I always looked up to those guys at the high school,” he said.
Playing for his father was a great experience, Rowland said, but he had to prove doubters that he wasn’t just playing because his dad was the coach.
“Once I got to high school everyone started saying ‘daddy-ball, daddy-ball,’ because I got to play and then I started throwing better and shutting some people up,” he said.
Now it’s not about proving doubters wrong, it’s about proving to himself that he can make it in professional baseball.
“I think it’s still trying to prove myself, especially being my first year back, just trying to show that I should be here and that I was worth the draft pick,” he said. “If The Show doesn’t work out then so be it, but I’m going to try my best to get there.”