Iowa pitcher Nick Allgeyer details his road back from Tommy John surgery. Dargan Southard/Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Moments before heading under the knife, Nick Allgeyer left his head coach with one emphatic message.
“We talked right before he went in for the surgery,” Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller recalled.
“And Nick just looked right at me and said, ‘You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be back.’ I didn’t ever doubt that with him.”
Although it has firmly wedged its way into the baseball lexicon, Tommy John surgery remains a fickle beast. Every pitcher responds and recovers at a different pace, thus making it difficult to pinpoint exactly when a guy will begin throwing like his old self.
Some players see a complete bounce back in as little as 12 months, or even a bit sooner. Others require two full calendar years. An unfortunate few see their careers deteriorate entirely.
After snapping his UCL during a mid-September bullpen session, Allgeyer went through surgery on Oct 11, 2016.
He climbed the mound in a competitive setting, dug in and fired away on Aug. 20.
“Right when he did it, Nick’s response was like, ‘Hey, this stuff happens.’" Hawkeyes pitching coach Desi Druschel said. "There are a lot of people who’d sit there like, ‘Why me? Why did this happen? What did I do? How can it be me?’ And it was never that.
“It was just like, ‘Hey, I throw a baseball, and right now, baseball players have Tommy John surgery. It happens, and it happened to me. OK, what do I need to do to get back?’”
Less than 16 months after Allgeyer’s decisive promise, the Hawkeyes southpaw is back, exactly where he planned to be. With Nick Gallagher, Ryan Erickson and C.J. Eldred all departed, Iowa’s 2018 weekend rotation is beckoning for consistency. There's an open path to Friday night stardom.
Allgeyer is working toward such a role. Things are far from set in stone, but don’t be surprised to see the 6-foot-3 lefty take the hill for Iowa’s Feb. 16 season opener against Toledo.
That’s what every college starter wants to be, the trusted horse who ignites each weekend with reliable dominance that's rarely disturbed. On a good day, these guys are special, magical at times. On an off day, they’ll fight with every weapon they possess to keep the game winnable.
“When I was doing my rehab, that’s what I was focused on,” Allgeyer said this week. “That’s what I wanted to be — the Friday guy. That’s what I've worked toward.”
Starting the grueling Tommy John journey with a downtrodden mental approach can lead to a bumpier recovery. After a productive sophomore campaign, Allgeyer had reason to be in such a state.
He had just finished the 2016 season as one of Iowa’s most trusted bullpen pieces, racking up a team-high 22 appearances with a 3.44 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. Allgeyer then spent the ensuing summer training at St Louis’ Premier Pitching and Performance (P3), and had his velocity rising as he trekked back to Iowa. A promising season was ahead.
Facing live hitters for the first time that fall, Allgeyer’s left arm went numb on an errant slider. He threw seven more pitches, all balls. Subsequent MRIs revealed a shattered UCL.
There's no practice drill for the mind, no trial run for mental adversity. Some players stand tall and push through, others not so much. Allgeyer was prepared.
“Once I got surgery," he said, "I had the right mindset of 'Rehab’s going to get me back. I’ve got to look at this as a way to get better, and it’s going to better for me in the long run.'”
Instead of sulking and worrying, Allgeyer plunged right in. An entire summer of training had already cranked up his fastball — imagine what an whole year could do. The initial few weeks after surgery required time spent in a brace, but it was full-throttle once Allgeyer was cleared for recovery.
He slogged through a rigorous schedule — six to seven days a week of rehab, multiple sessions a day — while trying to remain connected to the team as much as possible. Even as Iowa’s 2017 season turned memorable with a Big Ten Tournament title and a regional appearance, Allgeyer showed no bitterness despite being on the mend.
Another mental hurdle cleared.
“The mindset is the biggest wild card in the whole thing,” Heller said. “It isn’t that certain guys aren’t tough — I think they’re all afraid, to some degree ... All those thoughts are very real for any athlete who goes through it.
“But I’ve found the ones who can block that out and really push through it are the ones who get back quicker and the ones who generally make it back.”
Allgeyer had an added bonus in his recovery, a rare, almost opportunity that no other college pitchers receive in the fall. The Hawkeyes hadn’t initially planned to take him to the World University Games last August, but Allgeyer’s recovery had been so accelerated that he was raring to go.
As much as a team can try, replicating game-like atmospheres in practice is essentially impossible. Doubt and indecision often lingers in that first real appearance off Tommy John. Allgeyer got to erase those feelings well before the 2018 season commenced.
“That’s what we were able to do with Taipei,” Druschel said. “It was perfect timing.”
Two weeks out from opening day, Allgeyer has been named a team captain, is throwing in the low 90s and has full confidence in snapping off one slider after another.
Is he ready for a full night’s workload — seven innings, 100 pitches? Maybe not quite yet. But it shouldn’t take long for the southpaw to round into form.
When surgery and uncertainty were on the horizon, Allgeyer called his shot with authority. The Hawkeyes expected nothing less.
“A professional mentality is what Nick has,” Druschel said. “He does have a true inner confidence that you want in every pitcher.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.