KU baseball finds success without top pitcher

05/28/2014 5:47 PM

05/28/2014 5:49 PM

The cast on his left arm, cumbersome and bulky, is gone now. So is the lighter brace that took its place for five weeks.

Wes Benjamin looks perfectly healthy as he steps into the shade of the Kansas dugout at Hoglund Ballpark. His left arm hangs free, and he wears a Kansas baseball shirt. But Benjamin is not healthy. Not yet.

Nearly two months after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, Benjamin is still waiting.

“Hanging in there,” Benjamin says.

Benjamin’s left arm is two months into a nine-to-12 month rehab process. He has missed the last eight weeks of his junior season, and he will be in the dugout again on Friday, when No. 3 seed Kansas (34-24) opens its first NCAA regional appearance in four years against Kentucky at 1 p.m. in Louisville.

For Benjamin, the Jayhawks’ No. 1 starter, the timing could not have been worse. Before the season, he was projected to be selected in the top five to 10 rounds of next week’s Major League Draft. He would spend the year as KU’s Friday night starter. His professional career beckoned.

Then the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow snapped, and he became another statistic in a continuing spike of Tommy John surgeries.

“You’d be making a lot of money knowing how to prevent it,” Benjamin says.

This week, Benjamin will watch his team in the NCAA postseason. And next week, he hopes some team still takes a chance on him in the early rounds, giving him an opportunity to finish his rehab with a major-league club.

But as Benjamin ponders what comes next, it’s also a reminder that the arm-injury headlines that dominate Major League Baseball on a nearly daily basis are not relegated to a certain level or to players with a certain pedigree. They touch college programs, too, stalling careers and leaving veteran college coaches to use more caution in how they utilize young arms.

“We’re so cognizant,” Kansas coach Ritch Price says. “It’s incredible.”

In the not-so-distant past, top college pitchers would take on a full workload in the spring and then spend the next few months throwing in elite summer leagues in Cape Cod, or Minnesota or California.

Now Price caps his pitchers’ workload at close to 90 innings for the spring and summer. If they reach that mark during the spring, they’re shut down for the summer.

“It’s a national epidemic,” Price says.

And nobody can really figure out why. All arms are different, of course. And so are the mechanics of young pitchers. But Price, who has led KU to three NCAA appearances in nine seasons, suspects that pitching overuse at a young age — especially on competitive travel baseball circuits — is a large component of the problem.

“The kids are playing when they’re 7, 8, 9-years old,” Price says. “They’re playing two (games) on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday. As a result, I think most of those injuries are happening when they’re really a lot younger.”

For Benjamin, his arm broke down in a Friday night start against Oklahoma on March 28. Two weeks earlier, he had thrown 118 pitches while going a 8 2/3 innings in a 3-2 victory against Texas. The soreness and inflammation began to appear, but for Benjamin, it was nothing out of the ordinary.

“I don’t think my arm had enough time to recover, so I just felt really sore after that,” says Benjamin, who was 4-0 with a 4.22 ERA when his season ended. “And the next thing I know, I wasn’t able to throw a bullpen the next week or so.”

Benjamin made his start the next week against Dartmouth, and then took the mound against Oklahoma on March 28 in Lawrence.

“I was able to still start,” Benjamin said, “but unfortunately it still kind of snapped, I guess.”

While beginning his rehab, Benjamin began reading up on the latest young pitchers to go under the knife. Every day, it seemed, there would be a new name. Another young pitcher going down, often close to his own age. According to research done by Dr. James Andrews, a leading voice in sports medicine who operated on Benjamin, the average age of a player’s first Tommy John surgery is 21 — or basically a college junior.

So when Benjamin saw that one of professional pitchers that went down was Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez, he recalled a summer tournament in Jupiter, Fla., during his junior year of high school. Benjamin, a native of St. Charles, Ill., faced Fernandez’s Florida-based summer team.

Looking back, Benjamin remembers plenty of tournaments where he threw on back-to-back days or chalked up a high pitch count. At the time, Benjamin says, his arm always felt great. He was young, and wanted to be out there. But years later, it’s easy to be curious: Did he throw too much?

“I was a go-to guy when I was little, and threw maybe a couple games in a row or whatever we needed,” Benjamin says. “It’s unfortunately common in this generation.”

Now Benjamin will wait. If he can find the right professional opportunity, he’ll likely grab it and focus in on getting back on the mound. It could take nine to 12 months. But if he has to wait another year, he’s comfortable returning to Kansas, too.

“Obviously, this is kind of a nick in the armor,” Benjamin says. “Hopefully, a team is still interested in me, and hopefully it’s kind of a blessing in disguise to see that maybe some team is able to look past that and really wants you for the long haul.”

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