They made the cut, then a comeback

Two USF pitchers who underwent arm surgery made speedy recoveries.

Published April 29, 2005

TAMPA - If he's behind in the count, if a bad inning is about to erupt around him on the mound, South Florida freshman Daniel Thomas can find a surprising motivation in the purple scar along the inside of his right elbow: You've gotten out of worse jams before.

On that same mound, fearlessly relying on another elbow recently reconstructed with Tommy John surgery, Bulls senior Tim Mattison has emerged as a dominant closer, having gone 11 games and six weeks since he lastgave up a run.

"It's one of the most remarkable things I've seen in my career," said USF coach Eddie Cardieri, whose Bulls (25-21) open a key weekend tonight at home against No. 2-ranked Tulane.

"With pitchers, it's usually that second season when they're themselves again. Daniel and Timmy are such an exception. They're back and they've been effective. Five years ago, you might have thought it was career-threatening."

Thirty-one years after New York Yankees pitcher Tommy John underwent the radical surgery that would assume his name, ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction now is as commonplace in a baseball dugout as are sunflower seeds and orange water coolers. Three USF position players are veterans of the surgery, but Cardieri can't remember another Bulls pitcher making such a comeback, especially so quickly.

Thomas' road to recovery started first, after he went under the knife Jan. 16, 2004. It wiped out his senior season at Gaither High, and though he already had committed to USF, he was told to expect to redshirt his first season with the Bulls. Thomas, however, had a different mindset from the start, making it his goal to return in full health this season.

"That thought was in my mind the whole time," Thomas said. "I knew in my mind I could make myself come back, because I wanted to play. I just had to push myself, every day, going to rehab."

Five weeks after Thomas' surgery, Mattison was pitching as a senior for USF in his native Jacksonville, with two outs in the ninth inning, when, as he puts it, "my elbow went pfftt." Done for the season, he took a medical redshirt and underwent surgery March 8.

"They say it takes about 15 to 18 months before you actually feel 100 percent again," said Mattison, who went 15-0 as a high school senior and had stops at two other colleges before transferring to USF in 2003. "The timetable was 11 months to our first game, but I'd seen other guys able to come back in 11 months."

Rehab wasn't easy. At first, it was just holding a bat and rotating it a half-turn, then swiveling forearms back and forth to work their muscles.

"It was tough, because it hurt so bad," Thomas said. "There were times when I just said, "Why is this pain still here? After the surgery, it's supposed to go away.' "

He remembers his rehabilitation in the small milestones. At two months, his brace came off; at four months, he had started throwing again. His velocity started to return after six months, but there were setbacks, such as a frightening relapse of pain in his seventh month. Throwing again was a step, but throwing strikes would be another.

"Every other throw would be in the dirt, or high, or something like that," he said.

He gradually moved from throwing on flat ground to off a bullpen mound. His first test was an intrasquad game in January. He relieved in USF's season opener at Bethune-Cookman in the early-February chill. That he pitched at all was impressive, but striking out five of the nine batters he faced in 22/3 innings of no-hit baseball?

"It was like I'd never left the mound, like I never had surgery," he said. "It was awesome. I had a lot of adrenaline going."

Thomas, who will start Sunday if he's not used in relief earlier , has given USF a reliable starter behind ace Casey Hudspeth, a sophomore from Sarasota. He's second among Bulls starters behind Hudspeth in wins (6), strikeouts (38) and ERA (3.99). With a strong finish, he could challenge Hudspeth's freshman record of eight victories.

Mattison's recovery was even faster, and after starting the season in middle relief, he's found a niche as the Bulls' closer. Since his first save March 12, Mattison has dominated, allowing no runs in his last 191/3 innings, a stretch of 11 appearances. He hasn't given up a hit in his last six outings, dropping his ERA to 1.27, second-best in C-USA among pitchers with more than five innings pitched.

"It's fantastic to be back. The Lord has blessed me and given me the strength I needed," said Mattison.

Mattison remembers the adjustments he made in going from high school to Florida Community College in Jacksonville. Knowing that, and having been through the same rehabilitation in the past year, he has been impressed how Thomas has handled his first season on a college campus.

"It's a big transition, and what he's done is outstanding," he said.

Starting this weekend, the Bulls will need a strong finish to earn a spot in the NCAA regionals, but the healthy return of Thomas and Mattison has reminded the Bulls to think beyond the predictions. .

"This last third of the season is so important to our success," Cardieri said. "If we're going to have any, we've got to win down the stretch. We'll have to earn every win."