IOWA CITY, Ia. — Calvin Mathews refers to the throbbing in his right shoulder as if it is a personal belonging, not something that has robbed him of a future in professional baseball.
“My pain came back a couple of weeks ago,” the senior pitcher for Iowa said this week in a tone of voice that suggested he had actually missed it.
This has been Mathews’ life for four years, ever since he felt a popping sensation while throwing a routine warm-up pitch in the fall of his freshman season. His labrum torn (although that wouldn’t be revealed for another year), the 6-foot-4 former star at Davis County High School has been on a diet of pain-numbing naproxen and ibuprofen ever since, working six days a week to strengthen the muscles in the shoulder to try to compensate for the frayed cartilage.
It has worked at times. Mathews threw 146 innings with a 2.59 ERA as a sophomore and junior, helping the Hawkeyes reach the NCAA Regionals in a magical season a year ago.
His senior season began with the most intense aching yet, which led to a cortisone shot to release him from the agony, but stripped him of the ability to locate his pitches. He has thrown only 31 innings, served up eight home runs and has a bulky 7.04 ERA heading into the final homestand of his Iowa career, Friday through Sunday, against Michigan State.
As his time in a Hawkeye uniform comes to a conclusion, it’s fair to wonder whether fans should celebrate what Mathews was able to accomplish or lament what might have been.
“It’s not the way I wanted to go out,” the soft-spoken native of Bloomfield said. “But baseball’s a cruel game.”
It wasn’t always so for Mathews. In high school, he dominated for four years, including a state Class 2A championship as a junior when he sported a 0.51 ERA. He was Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in 2012. He committed to Iowa as a sophomore.
Iowa coach Rick Heller remembers seeing Mathews as an eighth-grader at one of his camps when he was coaching the now-defunct Northern Iowa baseball team. He tried to land Mathews then and was happy to inherit him when he took over at Iowa three years ago, even though the pitcher was already damaged by then and his velocity, once in the low 90s, had lost 3 to 4 mph.
“I really believe that if Calvin hadn’t gotten hurt that he was going to have a long pro career and a chance to possibly pitch in the major leagues,” Heller said. “He’s got that kind of makeup, that toughness that you can’t teach.”
That toughness kept Mathews from quitting on his sport altogether. Once a second MRI revealed the torn labrum before his sophomore season, he eschewed surgery in favor of constant rehab and pain medication. Surgery would have meant only a 60 percent chance that he could pitch again, he was told, and he had seen two former teammates go that route and never be the same athlete.
“He’s one of the toughest pitchers I’ve ever had to play with,” senior catcher Jimmy Frankos said. “The kid’s in a lot of pain every day. You ask him how he’s feeling, he’ll be honest with you, he doesn’t feel very good. But he’s battled.”
Mathews may not be done yet. The return of “his” pain — a sign that his cortisone shot has worn off — has enabled him, in some perverse way, to get a better feel for his pitches. He relies on control of his fastball especially, along with a slider and changeup, to get batters out. Two weeks ago, he was able to start against Kansas State, giving up two runs in three innings of a 4-2 Hawkeyes loss.
But that represented progress.
Mathews may get the start again in Sunday’s 1 p.m. home finale. Nick Gallagher suffered a groin injury in last Sunday’s loss at Ohio State and his status is uncertain. Mathews can only be used as a starter since it takes him about 40 minutes to get his arm warmed up.
“I’ve still got a lot of confidence in him. I know he’s going to go out there and be a bulldog and battle as hard as he can for you. If he has his command, he’ll give us two or three innings, maybe four, and get us off to a good start,” Heller said.
It’s a crucial series for Iowa (22-23), which enters play 10th in the Big Ten standings. Only the top eight teams make the conference tournament, and the Hawkeyes probably need to win at least four of their final six games (they finish with a three-game series at Penn State next weekend) to climb that high.
Getting a handful of quality innings from Mathews would be a big lift.
“I felt like I was starting to get back to normal, with my pain. Not just going out there throwing with the rubber arm,” Mathews said of his last start.
“Ever since I’ve been here I don’t think probably anyone’s saw the real Calvin Mathews. It was tough at first. But now I just want to go out and have fun with the guys the last couple weekends.”