Three Dawgs back in the hunt after surgery

By Thomas Donley, @TdonleyDE

Three Saluki pitchers share the mark of a pitcher once pushed past his limits, reduced to inactivity and brought back to full health—a C-shaped scar on their right elbows.

Senior Bryce Sablotny, sophomore Anthony Shimkus and sophomore Jacob Williams are all returning from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery this spring.

Each of them suffered a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of their pitching elbows.


Before 1974, this injury would have meant the end of a pitcher’s career.

That year, Dr. Frank Jobe and major league pitcher Tommy John made one of the most important advances in sports medicine.

John blew out his elbow in the middle of the 1974 season. His baseball career appeared to be over, but he and Jobe decided to try an experimental surgery to replace John’s damaged ligament.

John spent all of 1975 recovering and returned to Major League Baseball in 1976. He went on to pitch 13 more seasons.

Jobe gave John a one in 100 chance of pitching after the surgery. Today, the success rate for Tommy John surgery is roughly 90 percent.

UCL tears are usually a result of overuse. The human arm is not designed for an overhand pitching motion, and throwing too hard too often will damage the ligament, which is used mostly in that situation.

Softball pitchers can start back-to-back games because of their pitching motion, but baseball pitchers require more rest.

The replacement ligament can come from the pitcher’s wrist or hamstring. Sablotny’s and Williams’ replacement tendons came from their wrists, and Shimkus’ came from his hamstring.

Recovery takes about a year, during which a pitcher must rebuild his arm strength essentially from scratch. Someone recovering from Tommy John surgery must wait two months before resuming any physical activity.

Once a pitcher begins throwing again, he must build up gradually with short, soft throws before getting back on a mound.

SIU coach Ken Henderson said he handles pitchers with caution after having arm surgery to avoid needing repeat surgeries.

“We’re a program that believes first and foremost is their health,” Henderson said. “We’re not going to rush them.”

Sablotny said the mental aspect of recovering from Tommy John surgery is every bit as grueling as the physical rehab.

“Whenever you get something like that, your mentality changes,” Sablotny said. “You’re a little timid. Up until this year, I didn’t get that mentality back.”

In addition to elbow surgery, Sablotny has dealt with a broken ankle, an injury he suffered in September. He said he is ready to go for his senior season.

“This is my last year in baseball, so this year is going to be an emotional ride. But I’m excited for it,” Sablotny said. “I think I’m more prepared than I ever was.”

Rather than seeing his setback negatively, Sablotny maintains a sense of humor about his scar.

“I thought about getting a tattoo of a smiley face on mine,” Sablotny said. “But my dad would kill me.”

Shimkus said the hardest part of his recovery was sitting out while the Salukis competed.

“Sitting and watching the team play and not being a part of it, that’s been pretty rough on me,” Shimkus said. “The rehab process wasn’t as hard as just watching.”

Sablotny and Shimkus went down about the same time in spring 2013. Sablotny’s final appearance that year was March 12 at Middle Tennessee State. Shimkus lasted until April 19 at Creighton.

Both pitched for the first time in almost two years last weekend against Texas Christian University. Sablotny allowed 1 run in 2 innings Saturday. Shimkus made his debut Sunday, allowing 3 runs in two-thirds of an inning.

Williams last pitched Feb. 25, 2014. Henderson said he is scheduled to be cleared this week. Shimkus said Williams had several questions for him and Sablotny after he tore his UCL.

“He was just asking questions about the process like, ‘How is it going to feel? What do you have to do?’” Shimkus said. “We were there for him, kind of working together like a team within the team.”

Shimkus, Sablotny and Williams are not the only members of the Saluki baseball team who have experience with Tommy John surgery.

Assistant coach P.J. Finigan, who pitched for SIU from 2002 to 2005, underwent three elbow surgeries in 13 months, including two Tommy John surgeries as a prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system. Those surgeries were unfortunately ineffective and ended Finigan’s playing career.

Finigan said his experience makes him nervous for any Saluki undergoing surgery.

“I always have to hold my breath and hope that anybody that has it here doesn’t share the same trouble that I had,” Finigan said. “I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269.