Mason Radeke felt fully healthy, but before testing out his tricky right elbow, he wanted to take every precaution — even the scantly logical.
Coming off a sophomore season cut severely short by arm pain, the Cal Poly right-hander made his first appearance back on the mound in nearly four months, logging one scoreless inning with the summer collegiate San Luis Obispo Rattlers in an 8-1 victory over the California Wahoos on Tuesday.
Radeke, who had not pitched since a 5-3 Mustangs loss to Houston on March 14, might have made his comeback a couple days earlier if not for a troublesome anniversary.
“I was actually going to pitch this past weekend,” Radeke said. “I was feeling ready. I was feeling strong, but it was the exact date and the exact team I hurt my arm last year.
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“I decided to take a little more time off and pitch against the Wahoos.”
Rattlers manager Roy Howell, a former Major League All-Star, is being admittedly cautious with Radeke, as well as the rest of his pitchers — who all run on pitch counts.
Howell will continue to use Radeke only sparingly as the pitcher returns from the elbow injury that first cropped up under the Rattlers manager’s watch last summer, but don’t blame the latest little delay on him.
“I wear 13, so, I don’t have much superstition, but pitchers are pitchers,” Howell said, “and if he were left-handed he would be more superstitious.
“That’s what the game’s about.”
Radeke’s memory of last July 3 certainly hasn’t faded. It was following a standout freshman season at Cal Poly that he first felt the twinge in his arm against the MLB Urban Youth Academy Barons.
“One pitch, I felt a sharp pulling sensation, a sharp pinch in my elbow,” said Radeke, who had helped lead the Mustangs to the program’s first NCAA regional with a 6-2 record and 5.31 ERA. “I tried two more, and one made it 55 feet. The other made it 50 feet.”
Radeke got conflicting reports from doctors — one saying he had a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, two others agreeing that there was no tear.
UCL tears are the common precursor to Tommy John surgery, an elbow ligament replacement procedure with a lengthy and unpredictable recovery timetable.
This summer marks Radeke’s second go-around trying to remedy the elbow pain with rest to avoid surgery. After getting hurt last summer, he was shut down until the start of Cal Poly’s season.
Things were looking good to start. Radeke was 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his first three starts, easily looking like the Mustangs’ ace.
But in the loss to Houston — the team’s ninth defeat in the first 15 games — the pain crept back up again, and Radeke gave up three runs on six hits in six innings without striking out a batter.
He didn’t make another appearance the rest of the season.
“I was thinking about my career,” Radeke said. “It wasn’t worth the risk of possibly tearing my UCL and having to get Tommy John surgery. The season wasn’t going too well, and I didn’t want to take any risks knowing that next year I could possibly sign or get drafted.”
The entire episode has caused a philosophical shift at Cal Poly. After watching Radeke go down and Matt Leonard, another one of his top returning pitchers, throw a no-hitter during the summer, Mustangs head coach Larry Lee is more hesitant about sending his pitchers out to wood-bat leagues.
There are fewer than a handful of Mustangs pitchers playing summer ball, a steep decline from past years, and Radeke and Cal Poly teammate Jeff Johnson are both handling light duties for the Rattlers.
“You have to weigh what’s more important,” Lee said, “the experience of trying to develop pitches in the summer or making sure you bring somebody back at full strength. When your pitchers are away from you, you don’t have control of what they do and what their coaches do. Someone like Roy gets it. He understands what’s important in the process, whereas other coaches, winning sometimes clouds their good judgment for other coaches.”
Radeke finds himself in his third summer with the Rattlers, taking baby steps toward next season with Cal Poly. In his one inning against the Wahoos, Radeke did not allow a hit, walked one and struck out another.
Howell said Radeke is strictly limited to throwing fastballs and changeups. Radeke won’t start a game this summer, and his limit simply remains one inning or 20 pitches, whichever comes first.
The best possible outing would be a 1-2-3 inning out of the bullpen.
“We’re just going to go inning by inning, and hopefully, we can build him up a little bit,” Howell said. “It’s just about him getting back on the mound, mound presence and work on his command and control.
“He knows what he needs to do, and he’s worked very hard at it. There isn’t anybody that’s as diligent at being willing to pitch. If anything, we have to calm him down.”
Radeke will join fellow Mustangs junior Matt Jensen on the list of injured players looking to rebound and better their draft stock.
Jensen, in the last day of his tryout with the U.S. National Collegiate Team, has seen his past two seasons ended prematurely by freak injuries — a collarbone broken in a collision with a baserunner and a dislocated knee suffered on an awkward throw.
Cal Poly’s season could hinge on how much Jensen and Radeke will be able to provide.
“If he’s 100 percent healthy, he’ll be a big part of our success,” Lee said of Radeke. “He has valuable experience, and what he brings competitively to the mound is extremely important. He could be a Friday or Saturday starter. And then I know that there’s nothing more that would please him than to be our Friday starter, but it’s a long way away considering where he is healthwise.”