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From under the knife to on top of the mound: Bobcat pitcher becomes ace following surgery

Redshirt sophomore Gerry Salisbury went 22 months without throwing in a game, but has his coaches' confidence now more than ever.

As the 2016 season approached for Ohio, one of the lingering questions was who would fill the role of staff ace and take the mound every Friday night. After all, in the 2015 Mid-American Conference Tournament championship season, three different players held that job at different points in the season.

It came as a bit of surprise, then, when weeks before the season the name coach Rob Smith identified as his Friday starter belonged to someone who didn’t throw a single pitch last season.

The name was Gerry Salisbury, a 6-foot, 180-pound left-handed redshirt sophomore from Brunswick, Ohio. And he was fresh off of dominating fall league just one year removed from having an entire part of his life thrown in serious jeopardy.

“I knew something was wrong after what was, ironically, my best game of the season,” Salisbury said. “I threw six innings against Rio Grande, but right after I came out, my elbow had never hurt before, but it really hurt that day.”

Salisbury injured his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow on April 16, 2014. He tried to rehab it to avoid surgery, spending the summer doing workouts he hoped would fix the problem on its own.

Instead, he blew out the ligament completely.

The only answer that remained for Salisbury was Tommy John surgery, a UCL reconstruction procedure named after the former major league player of the same name, and the first baseball player to undergo the surgery back in 1974.

During the surgery, the UCL is replaced with another tendon in the body. In Salisbury’s case, it was the palmaris longus tendon in his wrist.

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What came next was, in Salisbury’s words, a long process and a lot of long nights.

“You have to follow the whole physical therapy process,” former Ohio pitcher Spencer Sapp, who underwent the surgery during high school, said. “I tried to push through everything, and it put me a step back. If you feel anything out of the ordinary, you have to say, ‘This isn’t right,’ and you take a week off and take a step back in your program.”

Sapp was one of three seniors on the Bobcats pitching staff in 2015, and finished second on the team with a 1.65 ERA for the season. Salisbury said having Sapp to talk to throughout the year was crucial to his recovery path.

“He knew it was a long process and that I wasn’t anxious to be waiting very long,” Salisbury said.

Even after the surgery, however, there are no guarantees. Of professional players that get the surgery, 87 percent are able to return to the major leagues, according to a 2014 study by HealthResearchFunding.org. Of that 87 percent, up to 10 percent never reach the level of play they had prior to the surgery.

Salisbury didn’t just match his pre-surgery performance, however. He began to exceed it and did so quickly.

Upon his arrival to Ohio, Salisbury sat around 82-85 mph with his fastball, with a change-up and slider that played down to that velocity. In the fall, however, he was up to 87-91 mph in bullpen sessions.

“The emergence of Salisbury makes a massive difference in us being confident in a Friday starter,” Smith said. “To have a left-hander that’s throwing with that kind of velocity, you don’t get that every year.”

Salisbury took the mound on Feb. 18 in Ohio’s season-opener against UNC-Asheville, primed for his first in-game action in 22 months. He walked five of the 16 batters he faced and allowed just one hit and two runs in three and two-thirds innings of work. He also struck out three batters.

The first month of the season will be crucial to Salisbury, as well as the Bobcats. It will be a chance for the team to gradually lift Salisbury off pitch counts, easing his arm back into full-time work in hopes that he’ll be ready for deeper innings in time for the March 25 conference opener against Northern Illinois.

It’s also a time for Salisbury to become reacquainted with his favorite pastime.

“It’s given me a better appreciation for the game,” Salisbury said. “Being out that long makes you realize how much you really love baseball and how much you miss it.”

aw987712@ohio.edu

@_TonyWolfe_

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