After Strasburg, VU coach and pitcher tap brakes on fast return from injury

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 9:05pm

T.J. Pecoraro returned so fast he had to take it slow.

Back from a season-ending elbow injury two months sooner than expected, the right-handed pitcher eased back into the mix under orders from the Vanderbilt coaching staff.

He made his 2012 season debut last March — 10 months after ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction or Tommy John surgery, as it is more commonly known — and the results were promising. Pecoraro pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed just one hit.

So he continued to work back up the recovery ladder. He pitched a total of 5 2/3 innings in his next three appearances before he made his first start, which lasted a then-season-high 4 2/3 innings. By the end of the season he had made eight starts, thrown two complete games and pitched 53 innings.

The former Freshman All-American felt so good that pitching coach Derek Johnson didn’t have any reservations sending Pecoraro off to the Cape Cod League for the summer.

“I didn’t really go into the summer thinking we would have to limit him,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I wanted to make sure we didn’t do too much where he came in and he was dead. ... He went out this summer and his arm wasn’t feeling great. As opposed to pushing it, it was more like, ‘All right, well let’s go ahead and pull back the reins a little bit and maybe shut it down so that you’re ready to go for the fall, you feel good and it gives you a chance to recover.’

“So it wasn’t planned like the Strasburg thing.”

Johnson, of course, is referring to Stephen Strasburg and the proposed shutdown of the Washington Nationals ace.

The 6-foot-4 right-hander also underwent Tommy John surgery — nearly two years ago. Since then, he has pitched more than 174 innings, including 150 this season. He is 15-6 with a 3.05 ERA and has headed up the Nationals’ run for the National League pennant.

But team officials are thinking about shutting down their best pitcher — and player — after Strasburg tops 160 innings pitched in fear of reinjuring his multi-million dollar elbow.

Coach Johnson has nearly 20 years of coaching experience and has been named the national pitching coach and national assistant coach of the year. Entering his 12th year at Vanderbilt, he has gained a reputation for developing pitchers for the next level, i.e. David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and Mike Minor of the Atlanta Braves.

Therefore, with his pitching background, he understands the sort of predicament the Nationals are facing — push too hard too soon and he ends back on the DL or ride the ace into the playoffs and beyond.

“Right or wrong, you’re not the one spending millions of dollars on him, the Nationals are. So they can do with him what they think is right,” Johnson said. “Most of the guys I have been around, who are in those types of positions, would want to pitch. I’ve never met Stephen Strasburg so I don’t know but I just know if you’re the ace of the staff, you want that on your shoulders.”

For any pitcher — or any athlete with competitive fibers — closing down prematurely, and missing out on a playoff run, is hard to fathom.

“It is going to be extremely hard,” Pecoraro said. “I can’t even imagine what he has to go through. But you just got to do what you’ve got to do and make sure your arm stays healthy. This way you can perform in years to come, not just looking at the short-term goals.”

Pecoraro began thinking about the long term when he was not effective for the Cotuit (Mass.) Kettleers on the Cape. He lasted just three games and eight innings, going 0-1 with a dismal 6.75 ERA.

Downplaying the soreness in his elbow, Pecoraro and Johnson decided after a three-inning outing on June 29 to end his summer early. In the three months that followed his return, he had pitched 61 innings — 22 more than his injury-shortened freshman campaign in 2011.

“It felt real good. I got my innings in the summer and I just knew I wanted to get the rest in,” Pecoraro said. “That was probably the most important thing to me. I didn’t want to keep throwing through the whole summer and then come back and be tired through the fall.”

Pecoraro has checked in with his doctor a couple times this summer but said there hasn’t been any cause for alarm or a follow-up procedure. In fact, the 19-year-old from Dix Hills, N.Y., believes his arm feels stronger than it did before the surgery.

“It probably feels a little better than before so I can’t wait to actually start throwing again,” he said. “I think it might have to do with the rest. Ever since even high school you are throwing all year, nonstop basically. The extra rest was definitely needed. My arm feels great.”

He arrived back at Vanderbilt two weeks ago for the start of his junior year. He’s done some light tossing in preparation for the Commodores’ first fall practice on Sept. 20.

When the first game rolls around next February, Pecoraro doesn’t want to hold back. He expects to be in the starting rotation along with fellow junior Kevin Ziomek and sophomore Tyler Beede.

Pecoraro planned on being a weekend starter last year as he cruised through the 2011 campaign with a 7-0 record and 1.59 ERA in six midweek starts before his injury in the SEC Tournament.

Describing the first two months as the toughest, he turned to veteran relief pitchers Mark Lamm and Navery Moore, who are both recovered from Tommy John surgery and are now pitching in the minor leagues for the Atlanta Braves.

“[Mark] rushed it a little bit at first so he had one or two setbacks,” Pecoraro said. “He said, ‘Make sure you take your time with it. Don’t rush it. Setbacks aren’t worth it.’ So I tried to stay patient. ... As time went by it got easier and easier. Then once I finally started to throw, I knew I was right down the road from coming back strong. It was exciting.”

Pecoraro finished the 2012 season with 12 appearances, a 2-4 record and a 3.40 ERA. He saved his best for last, going the distance twice in his last four starts and allowed just two runs in Vanderbilt’s NCAA Regional opener against UNC-Wilmington.

Now, with a well-rested arm and big expectations, he’s ready to pick up the pace with 2013 looming.

“I kind of want to hop out there as soon as I can and help the team out as much as possible,” Pecoraro said. “We’re going to be careful, make sure we don’t push it too hard, too quick. [But] I’m definitely going to make sure I’m ready for the start of the spring.”