Jon Pusateri makes fast, successful return from Tommy John surgery

By Tom Nader | Sports Editor Published:

In all aspects, Jon Pusateri was cruising along last year.

Just a sophomore on the University of Akron baseball team, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound right-handed pitcher was given the ball in a high-profile, early season matchup with the University of Southern Cal.

He was spotted a 3-0 lead by the bottom of the second inning, where he promptly struck out the first two batters he faced.

His accuracy was pinpoint and his change of speed kept Trojan batters off-balanced.

Suddenly, though, everything that was so good started going bad.

Pusateri walked the next two batters.

"I couldn't figure out what was happening," said Pusateri, who is a 2010 Waterloo High School graduate. "I went from hitting all my spots perfectly to not having any control of my pitches."

Pusateri rediscovered the zone against the inning's fifth batter with a fastball strike. He came back with an 0-1 curveball and it happened.

"I felt a pop in my elbow and it sent a burning sensation through my arm," Pusateri said.

He would go on to throw eight more pitches in the inning -- all in "excruciating pain." They were disastrous and included a grand slam home run, six runs scored and a lost lead.

"I knew there was something wrong. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the elbow with every pitch, but I just kept thinking that I could get us out of the inning."

He never did.

Pusateri was pulled out of the game after 1 2/3 innings. It was later determined that the "pop" he heard was the tearing of his ulnar collateral ligament.

The injury would sideline Pusateri for the remainder of the season, requiring Tommy John surgery to repair. The procedure, which got its name after it was first performed in 1974 on former major league baseball pitcher Tommy John, uses drilled holes in the ulna and humerus bones to harvest a new tendon that is taken from a different part of the body and woven in a figure-eight pattern.

In Pusateri's case, his surgeon used a tendon from his wrist.

"Once our team doctor recommended surgery, my family and I visited Dr. (James) Andrews in Alabama," Pusateri said. "He saw me on March 12, 2012, and I had the surgery the very next day, March 13."

Dr. Andrews has gained national recognition after having worked on professional stars such as Washington Nationals phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Washington Redskins electric quarterback Robert Griffin III.

"He said that I didn't really do any additional damage to my arm by throwing those eight additional pitches, because I tore 90 percent of the ligament when that first pop happened."

MENTAL AND PHYSICAL REHABILITATION

Pusateri had his operation over spring break, allowing him not to miss a day of school.

For the first days after surgery, he was in a cast that kept his immobile arm at a 90-degree angle. On the sixth day, he was given permission to take the cast off, but only in exchange for a brace.

"It was pretty incredible, because you could already see the muscle loss," Pusateri said.

The comeback challenge was now in front of him, and he would be pushed to his limits both physically and mentally. The good news was that the once longshot recovery from Tommy John surgery is now much more common, with complete recovery rising to 92 percent.

But you have to start with the basics and for Pusateri that meant spending the first three weeks working on being able to stretch his arm to 180 degrees.

"The wrist ligament they used was something that was so tight that you literally have to learn how to stretch it back out," Pusateri said.

He also needed to rebuild himself, having lost 15 pounds after surgery.

"My arm was basically nothing but bone," Pusateri said, "and I knew I was going to have to work really hard to get back."

All the physical rehab had timelines, guidelines and goals to work toward. What did not carry those same benchmarks was the mental side of the rehab, which Pusateri said was far more difficult to handle.

"The toughest part, hands down," Pusateri said. "It kept me from being able to do anything for so long, that I had to fight the feeling that I was useless to people."

He found the comfort and support he needed through his family and friends.

"Wow, where would I be without them?" he asked rhetorically. "They were there for me for every tear I cried and through all my peaks and valleys of the rehab. And thank God for my dad."

DAD AND BASEBALL

For Pusateri, baseball begins and ends with his dad Brian.

"He is the one that taught me the game," Pusateri said. "We share a love for baseball, a passion for the game. We talk about it so much that it almost drives us insane. I think all of our conversations start the same way, with him asking me, ''How's baseball going'?"

It was that same passion, though, that served as the motivation throughout Pusateri's rehab. He absolutely had his Akron coaching staff to turn to, but his dad had coached him since he was 5 and was not about to stop now.

"He told me that all the hard work was going to pay off, but to get there, there had to be unprecedented effort first," Pusateri remembered. "He was pushing me along, making me better, making me work harder. He understands so much, and he picks up the little things I do like nobody else."

BACK ON THE MOUND

In mid-July and just four months after surgery, Dr. Andrews cleared Pusateri for the Zips' throwing program.

While Pusateri understood his hard work could not end there, it proved he was not only on the right path for a full recovery, but that he also had a chance to return to the Zips by Opening Day.

Opening Day was last Friday and Pusateri had not only been declared 110 percent weeks before, he had also been named the team's No. 1 pitcher by head coach Rick Rembielak.

"You want a No. 1 guy to be someone you know can handle that responsibility," said Rembielal, who spent 11 seasons as the Kent State baseball head coach (1994-2004). "We knew Jon was that kind of guy. He is very disciplined, very diligent in his work and he has been throwing very well."

On Friday, less than one year removed from surgery, Pusateri was back on the mound in game action.

He pitched 4 1/3 innings against nationally ranked Georgia Tech, striking out four and allowing just one earned run in a 3-0 loss to the Yellow Jackets. He threw 72 pitches, with 45 going for strikes on an abbreviated pitch count designed to protect his comeback.

"I know that I am still building myself up, regaining my strength," Pusateri said. "My coaches and I are in constant communication with each other, because we are still being cautious.

"We have had discussions about not overthrowing or trying to do too much too soon, which is fine with me, because all I am worried about is helping our team win. I am not worried about how fast I can throw the ball," said Pusateri.

REGAINING TRUST

Pusateri has four pitches he comes at hitters with.

His fastball hit as high as the low-90s before his injury and is now back between 84 and 89. His changeup, which Rembielak described as "very, very good" is also Pusateri's favorite pitch to throw. He also has a slider/cutter and a curveball.

It was the curveball that Pusateri said was the hardest to come back to because it was the pitch that caused the injury.

"I remember the day we were working in the fieldhouse and one of our trainers Mr. (Marty) Brinker asked me, 'You know what we're working on today'?"

"I knew it was curveballs, and I think I tried to play it off like I was not worried, but honestly, deep down, I was little bit scared."

It is all part of the process of Pusateri regaining trust in himself and his body, while also rebuilding his own confidence throw by throw.

"I am sure that trusting himself is a question in the back of his mind," Rembielak said. "It could be a distraction, but we are in constant discussion with him about keeping everything in perspective and engaging in the opportunity to explain and teach.

"Not a lot of guys would be able to do what Jon has done, though. It is why our staff has the confidence in him to handle it."

In all aspects, he is cruising along again.

•••

Email: tnader@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9443

Twitter: @Tom_Nader

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