By Matthew Stevens
Mississippi State left-handed pitcher Nick Routt has defined a Sisyphean effort over the past calendar year just to get back to the mound.
The junior, who will make his 2011 debut tonight at Lipscomb, has had three different occasions where he thought he was fully healthy from his severe injury to his pitching arm suffered on March 21, 2010 at Florida. However, every time he’s pushed the preverbal rock up the mountain he’s suffered a setback and he’s been forced to start all over.
“It’s obviously frustrating to start a throwing program and get all the way to where you think you’re ready and then hurt it again which forces you all the way back down," Routt said.
Routt hasn’t been seen on the mound since that second inning of the Sunday contest against the nationally-ranked Gators when after throwing his circle changeup, he knew something was definitely wrong.
“I was facing Austin Maddox and he was having a great weekend so I know that I was trying to throw my circle change with heavy pronation (turning the left arm clockwise similarly to a screwball) so it would get the sink on it,” Routt said. “I just felt a little weird in my elbow and my forearm and thought ‘that was weird.’”
Routt then described the feeling from that point in his arm as “getting worse and worse until it was unbearable” with the inning ending in a strikeout that had mixed reactions from him compared to his teammates.
“I remember thinking if I don’t get this guy out right here, I have to come out,” Routt said. “So I threw a fastball and I’m coming into the dugout with everybody saying ‘nice changeup, nice changeup’ and I was just thinking ‘um, that was a fastball, something is very wrong here.’”
From there, the merry-go-round of medical evaluations began starting with the MRI examination by the MSU medical staff followed by a trip to Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., and even traveling to see a specialist in Pittsburgh.
The conclusion was a strained or torn flexor muscle in the forearm and the rehabilitation would be a throwing program after three weeks of no pitching.
“After that everything was feeling fine until a 30-pitch bullpen in April and my last pitch was another changeup,” Routt said. “It felt the same as that pitch in Florida again.”
Routt was then at the bottom of the hill again with the doctor visits and medical tests having to be done all over again.
It was Andrews who then told Routt he’d done significant damage to his flexor muscle and if that were to tear, then he’d be looking at career-threatening Tommy John surgery to the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
Routt said the pain he’d felt in Gainesville and during the April bullpen session was the worst he’d ever felt since picking up a baseball as a kid.
“I’d had tendonitis in my shoulder once in high school but got a cortisone shot and I was fine after that,” Routt said. “That pain was nothing compared to what happened here.”
As Routt described the situation for the first time to the Starkville Daily News, he stared at the visibly noticeable scar down his elbow from the ulnar nerve replacement surgery he had completed this past summer after a recommendation from Dr. Rusty Linton.
It was during all those months of rehab, bullpen sessions and rest time, fans took to the message boards questioning Routt’s desire to pitch and saddled the sophomore from Silver Springs, Md., with arguably the worst label for any athlete – injury proned.
“I don’t really read that stuff or pay attention to it,” Routt said. “Obviously I want to pitch because if I didn’t want to pitch, I wouldn’t come out here everyday and go through how many hours of practice each week, that would just be stupid. It’s what I came to Mississippi State to do – to pitch.”
Since Routt knows that’s exactly what he’ll get to do tonight against Lipscomb (6 p.m.), he’s actually able to joke with Thompson about the whole situation.
“I told Coach Thompson when he told me I was starting, that I should be fully rested seeing as how I’m being thrown on about 360 days rest,” Routt said with a smile.
The mystery now for Routt, who will be on a pitch count between 40-50, isn’t what’s wrong with him physically but will he be able to replicate his performance from two years ago that earned him All-SEC Freshman team honors.
“I'm excited to see him pitch again," Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. "It's never the day of, it's the day after you get answers figured out.”
One of the major differences in Routt’s arsenal is his decision to change his best pitch, the changeup, to more of a straight change that, after consulting with Major League Baseball scouts, Thompson believes will not put so much stress on the arm.
“I was thumbing through the latest issue of Baseball America and the coaches in the SEC still think Nick Routt throws the best changeup,” Thompson said. “We’re talking about changing what a national publication is calling his best pitch in the best conference in America.”
Instead of twisting the arm the opposite way of normal at the end, Routt now says he “chokes” the ball with his grip similarly to way Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay throws his changeup.
“The only reason we would do that if we just feel that pitch is creating too much torque in the elbow area,” Thompson said. “I think we’re looking at this deal from a health standpoint first and foremost right now.”
With the fastball and changeup, Routt says he’s now feeling confident in using a cut slider this year.
“I don’t have the stamina right now to go 100-120 pitches but it’s at this point just about building up my pitch count,” Routt said. “I want to get back in the weekend rotation and be a factor on this team.”
Tonight’s start by Routt will answer a lot of those questions for the MSU coaching staff, who admittedly are just as interested as Bulldogs fans in what will happen when the southpaw takes to the mound.
“We need to see where he’s at,” Thompson said. “I don’t think I know what to expect. I think a lot of people would think I should know. All I can do at this point is create a moment to give him the ball and see how he’ll factor into our plans.”
Those answers will also showcase whether Routt is still figuratively pushing that rock up the hill or if that part of the journey is finally over.
“It was killer last week (when his projected start was postponed by rain) because I was so pumped for that game,” Routt said. “I looked outside and ‘thought, this is awful’ so I’m praying it doesn’t rain (today).”