When we last left freshman T.J. Pecoraro, he was heading into summer ecstatic that the Commodores had made their first-ever trip to College World Series. But that excitement was tempered by the frustration of not being able to throw a pitch at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park.
Pecoraro left in the fourth inning of his May 25 SEC Tournament start against Georgia with a torn ligament in his pitching elbow, cutting short a phenomenal freshman campaign. He found watching much tougher.
"It was okay at first. I didn't mind, and the team was winning," remembers Pecoraro, who was a perfect 7-0 and held batters to a .183 batting average last year. "I was having a great time watching, but when it started to get to me was when I actually had to sit in the stands and watch them play, and I couldn't be with them. I said to myself, `This really stinks.' I decided not to go to Omaha so that I could start rehabbing right away and get back as soon as possible. That was the better choice for me."
Pecoraro enters 2012 with a single goal: He wants to pitch for the Commodores this season. But the ulnar transplant surgery that he had in June usually takes between a year and 18 months of rehabilitation. The procedure has been refined and overhauled since longtime major leaguer Tommy John became the guinea pig of Dr. Frank Jobe's then-revolutionary surgery in 1974. Still the road to recovery is different for each athlete who requires "T.J." surgery.
"T.J. knows the line between getting the work in and working hard, but not overdoing it," said Chris Ham, who is Vanderbilt baseball's athletic trainer. Ham has overseen the same surgery rehab for former Commodores Curt Casali and Mark Lamm. "The maturity level of [Pecoraro] is through the roof. It's an education process for most guys in terms of rehabilitation and knowing their body. T.J. gets that and knows what he has to do to get back to (being) that pitcher that allowed one hit against Georgia in the SEC Tournament. Nothing would surprise me about his rehab."
Tommy John suffered his injury on July 17, 1974, and did not return to game action until April 1976, more than 18 months later. Pecoraro is hoping that he can cut the original T.J.'s timeframe in half and get back out on the mound to put up some meaningful innings for the Commodores this season. To make a comeback in less than a year would be an incredible feat and a real shot in the arm for the Commodores' young pitching staff, but no one is willing to risk the long-term benefits of having Pecoraro as part of the rotation.
"T.J. is very methodical and on-task with his rehab process, which is no surprise. He had a very strong foundation for pitching when he arrived on campus and this foundation has allowed him to work through the recovery period since the surgery," explained Head Coach Tim Corbin. "We have put no timetable on when he will be able to pitch this year. He is very eager to get back on the mound competitively, but this is about his long-term success. We will take the time that's needed to make sure that he is fully recovered and healed. When he's ready, T.J. and everyone surrounding him will be mentally secure in having him out there."