Mississippi State pitcher Spencer Price goes through a workout earlier this month that is part of his recovery following Tommy John surgery. Price’s ulnar collateral ligament suffered a 75-percent tear that forced him to have surgery that will keep him out of action until the start of next season. Photo by: Brett Hudson/Dispatch Staff
April 26, 2018 10:16:12 AM
STARKVILLE -- Spencer Price has been doing this long enough that he doesn't need much direction. He enters the weight room on this April Wednesday and grabs a sheet, white and laminated, from the trainer and gets to work on the workout it lists. The trainer in the gym this day, Taylor Gossman, is in and out of the room after Price warms up and gets going.
Price catches Gossman near the phone controlling the sound system and asks him for the Lil' Wayne playlist. Gossman gives him a hard time before obliging; "A Milli" comes on, Price bobs his head and gets back to work. This has been his only athletic activity for a month and will stay that way for a couple more, so he might as well get the atmosphere the way he wants it.
Under normal circumstances, Price would have spent this Wednesday with the Mississippi State baseball team, on its way to a weekend series in Baton Rouge as the team's closer. Instead, he's in an on-campus weight room, attacking another day in the ruthlessly long rehabilitation process from Tommy John surgery. The Dispatch gained access to Price's workouts for a series documenting Price's process of returning from the injury, a rehab pitchers worldwide have come to accept as an inevitability.
"It's a process you have to go through and it all starts with the first step," Price told The Dispatch. "You're not going to jump steps, you're not going to skip any, and that's why it takes so long to come back from it."
All told, his process will be almost 13 months long, as he puts everything into a hopeful return for Opening Day 2019 on Feb. 22. The moment that sent him on this road remains on his phone to this day, a video he's checked a few times and more or less left alone since.
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For the first time in months, Price was experiencing the best version of his pitching self. An ankle injury crashed the final two months of what could have been the best season from a closer in the nation in 2017, even though he pitched through it and finished with a 2.91 earned run average; that disappointment was a distant memory as he got going this winter.
On Jan. 31, he was at his best since the injury. He was feeling tightness in his forearm as he warmed up, but, "I've had tight muscles before," so he kept throwing and it felt fine. The first inning of that appearance was trademark Price dominance; he came out for a second inning and felt something in his elbow on the last warmup pitch. He shook his arm a tad as the catcher threw down to second, but soldiered on.
"Every pitch, it got worse," Price said. "I threw a fastball to Tanner (Poole) and it felt like I got stabbed in the elbow with a knife. I think that was it."
The catcher, unaware of the fresh trauma in Price's elbow, threw the ball back to him as Price was calling for medical attention. He broke stride to reach his glove hand back, catching the ball as he raised his right arm out in the direction of Jason Wire, the team's athletic trainer. Wire got to him and asked what's going on.
"I think it just tore," Price said.
"My velocity was up and I felt great. That was probably the best outing I've thrown in a while, and of course I tear it."
His final pitch of the 2018 calendar year, the one where his ulnar collateral ligament finally met its breaking point, registered at 87 miles per hour.
A MRI the next day confirmed a 75 percent tear of the ligament. Price wanted to get the video on his phone to check if his mechanics were off when the injury occurred, and he doesn't think they were. He still isn't sure how the injury came: maybe it was the last warmup pitch and it got worse over the ensuing pitches, maybe it was the final fastball to Poole, maybe it was an accumulation of years of pitching.
In any case, Price never looked at this as a traumatic event. This was an inevitability, one he was always prepared to fight when the time came.
"I always had a feeling growing up that I was probably going to have to have this surgery, ever since I was 11 years old I thought, 'If I ever have to get it, I'm going to get it and come back throwing harder,'" Price said. "That's what I've told myself since I was 11 years old. I ended up tearing it and I still have that mentality.
"If it didn't happen now, it was probably going to happen at some point down the road just because of the wear and tear on our arms. We throw every day and as a pitcher, you're doing an unorthodox motion for the human body and we're manipulating pitches to make them move in different ways. I think over time, it just gives."
Price is remarkably good at taking on the entire rehab process with that cavalier disposition, although it is early. Right now, the only thing that turns him serious and reflective is the time missed.
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The numbers game that is managing a college baseball roster severely limits Price's time around the team. Most of the time his workouts and physical therapy take place while the team is practicing and he doesn't go on the road, as the travel roster's limitations make it illogical to bring a pitcher who can't pitch. The only time he gets around teammates in a baseball setting is in the dugout at home games.
"You're sitting at home by yourself in Starkville while your boys are out playing, which is what you want to be doing," Price said. "When they went to play Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, that was hard for me.
"I kind of get to be a fan now. I get to sit back and enjoy the game from a fan's standpoint where before it was competitive, trying to do what I could to help win. Now I know there's nothing I can do about it except be the best teammate I can."
That's why he doesn't go to practice on the days his workout doesn't conflict. He knows he would be doing nothing but, "standing there and being a cheerleader," and he's not in the business of emotional and moral support. His only plays for helping MSU are on the field, and that's what he thinks about every day.
"I'm doing everything I can to be ready for Opening Day next year," Price said. "I think about it probably every day. I want to have the ball, I want to be the guy that goes out there and performs well for my team."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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