BREMERTON — It’s rare for athletes to undergo Tommy John surgery, but that’s especially true at the high school level for a prep player such as Knights pitcher Andy McMartin.
The junior felt discomfort last season that unfortunately led him to TJS if he wanted the chance to throw off the mound again.
It was a chance he had to take.
“Pitching is one of my favorite things to do,” he said. “It’s definitely been a long road. I put a lot of work into it and I’m just waiting to come back.”
There’s a sense of discouragement when athletes hear that they require the surgery — for the obvious reason. If an athlete needs TJS, it means they have a torn or ruptured ulnar collateral ligament. The potentially expensive procedure sidelines players from pitching for about a year — and that’s if they’re lucky.
Although the surgery is becoming increasingly successful, it’s not a guaranteed fix. Most studies conclude that about 20 to 30 percent of pitchers never fully return to their previous level of competition, according to Major League Baseball. For athletes like McMartin, this unsettling fact can instill a fearful uncertainty.
The second-team, all-league pitcher didn’t even have an opportunity to build off his successful 2017 season as a flamethrower. Post-surgery, he also wasn’t able to play the hot corner, which is what earned him first-team, all-league honors last year, because it’s best for him to not aggravate his elbow from throwing across the diamond.
He’s nonetheless finding ways to work around the rock in his cleat that is TJS. While McMartin was recovering, he manned first base for Bremerton, game in and game out. First-year head coach Steve Dickey said his ace pitcher did an excellent job at the plate, where he batted over .400 and led the team in runs batted in over the course of the season.
He’s had much of the same success at first base. McMartin dug the ball well when it took a short hop before the bag, meaning that the athlete saved the Knights “countless times from errors.”
“To Andy’s credit, he hasn’t let his setback affect his mental game, which says a lot about his character,” Dickey said. “It would’ve been easy for him to feel sorry for himself or make excuses, but he’s such an amazing competitor [that] he knows he’s better than that.”
Bremerton could have used McMartin’s arm on the mound this year. The Knights’ record confirmed that the team struggled throughout the 2018 season, giving up an average of more than 10 runs per game through its first 15 matches. But it makes sense to ease the pitcher back into his mechanics. Otherwise, he risks worsening his injury.
McMartin was quick to pinpoint the day of his surgery. May 16 is the one-year anniversary of his procedure. Knowing that he’d be sidelined from pitching for a while, it helped that he was able to get the surgery done within a month of the injury.
Even after a year, though, the junior still doesn’t know what caused his UCL. McMartin said he doesn’t think overuse was an issue — he always had plenty of rest before each start and abided by the pitch count rules.
“I always took really good care of my arm,” he said. “I’m not sure why it happened. It may have been just something that happened or mechanic-wise, something was wrong with my delivery.”
McMartin added that he hopes to be cleared to pitch again by mid-June, but he won’t know the specific timeline until after a checkup with his doctor next month.
While excited to throw again, he explained that he’s just as ecstatic, if not more so, to see where his team’s improvements take them in 2019. McMartin feels the Knights have progressively improved with each game.
Dickey noticed this, too. The head coach said Bremerton worked religiously on plate discipline, and it showed after a contest against North Kitsap on April 16. The Knights only had four strikeouts at the plate after beginning the season with “double-digit strikeouts all day long.”
“I see more continued improvement,” McMartin said. “We’re not going to take any steps back next year.”
Until then, the pitcher continues to work on rehab assignments.
“Right now, I’m throwing bullpen [sessions] … No problems yet,” McMartin said. “Everything feels great, haven’t had any setbacks in my throwing program.”
Expecting to wear a Knights jersey during his senior year, McMartin said he’s doing everything imaginable to make a pitching comeback next season. And that includes a strict throwing program.
“Baseball is a big part of my life, and this year I’ve been doing a lot of work now that I’m kind of back into the swing of things and I’m getting healthier,” he said.
For someone who is nearing his return from one of the scariest injuries a pitcher can get, McMartin knows best that his drive and passion to continue playing baseball is vital.
“You don’t want to take it for granted because you never know,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back out here.”
— Jacob Moore is a reporter for Kitsap Daily News. Contact him at Jmoore@soundpublishing.com or follow him on Twitter @JMooreKDN.