The first time, Matt Buckshaw noticed that his velocity was down and his fastball wasn't tailing. The pain in his elbow was excruciating, and his coaches immediately knew something was very wrong.
The second time, he felt his knee give out and crumpled to the ground in foul territory, where he lay for a while, unable to get up on his own.
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Buckshaw cried the first time he found out his dreams of playing college ball might go unfulfilled.
The second time . . . well, there was no second time. What for others would have been a flickering hope, he took as a certainty. He was going to see this thing to the end.
In the fall, Buckshaw, a Connetquot senior, will play for Stony Brook University, having spent more of his high school varsity career in rehab than on the mound. He'll go there with a repaired ulnar collateral ligament -- thanks to the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 10th grade -- and a mended ACL, which he ruptured the summer before his senior year.
Part of his college chance has to do with his coaches, who lobbied for him, and his potential, he said. The other part has to do with his past.
Buckshaw once was a freshman call-up with a huge upside, good velocity and better composure. His first varsity win was against Sachem North, which wound up winning the Long IslandClass AA championship that year. He went 5-0 that season.
Most of all, Buckshaw was a gamer, former Connetquot coach Bob Ambrosini said. He was going to be a big part of the Thunderbirds.
Instead, Buckshaw said, "I lost two crucial years.''
Buckshaw has pitched in three games this year, allowing six earned runs, eight hits and two walks and striking out 16 in 10 innings. He relies on his fastball (he throws in the mid-to- high 80s) and changeup and is working to improve his breaking pitches.
"I'm a work in progress,'' he said. "But my injuries helped me more than put me down. I've definitely learned to deal with adversity. I mean, doing this once stinks, but doing this twice is ridiculous.''
The long recovery
"All of ninth grade, I felt fine and did well,'' Buckshaw said. "And then I was pitching our first scrimmage against East Islip the next year and I just felt a little different warming up.''
The leadoff batter homered. The next batter doubled. Something was wrong.
Buckshaw went for an MRI on his elbow and was confident that it would show that there were no serious issues.
"I remember coming back from a scrimmage against Bay Shore and being excited that the doctor got back to [his father] because I wanted to pitch,'' Buckshaw said. "I asked my dad, 'What did he say? What did he say?' and my dad just gave me a look, and I knew. All I could think was, 'Baseball is my life.' ''
The Buckshaws went to Dr. David Altchek, the Mets' team physician, to perform the Tommy John surgery. It took 13 months for him to come back from that.
First, he went through a grueling regimen in which he visited physical therapist Brian Becker, director of rehabilitation at Excel Rehabilitation and Sports Therapy, three times a week for the entire span.
It was four months before he could even think about throwing a baseball, Buckshaw said. Instead, they strengthened his rotator cuff, lessened the inflammation in his elbow, worked on his range of motion and, perhaps most importantly, got his shoulder stronger, Becker said.
Most of all, Buckshaw was determined to stay positive. "I would really just be happy to grab a baseball and throw,'' he said. "I always knew it had to be a blessing in disguise and I had confidence in my doctor and physical therapist. It was them that never let me get down.''
Becker, a physical therapist for 20 years, said Buckshaw was "one of the hardest-working kids I'd ever seen. He did everything he could to get stronger. Then, one day, he calls me and tells me that he's finally feeling back to where he was before he got injured. Maybe two days later, I get another call.''
A final hurdle
Buckshaw was playing a doubleheader at Dowling with his Titans travel team when he was asked to play the outfield. While chasing a foul ball, he stopped abruptly to make the catch.
"I felt my knee give out and I knew my season was over,'' he said. "I don't know how, but I took it in stride. A lot of people talked to me and they were like, 'Oh, it's another blessing in disguise,' or 'It'll give your arm more time to rest.' I just laughed at it a little bit because it was a little bit ridiculous, but I figured I couldn't give up now.''
Buckshaw's tenacity had a huge impact on those around him. "I was so impressed by him mentally more than anything,'' Becker said.
His current Connetquot coach, Anthony Ambrosini, said Buckshaw's ability and toughness made Ambrosini excited at the prospect of having him back on the team after his recovery.
"He has no fear,'' he said. "It was a test for him and it showed his mental toughness that he wasn't beaten by these surgeries. It's deflating, but it's almost like it doesn't matter to him how many surgeries he has.''
Altchek and Becker made a return appearance in Buckshaw's life. Recovery was going smoothly, but still, something was missing.
"By late August, I saw like my entire travel team committed to college,'' Buckshaw said. "I felt a little left out because I knew what type of ballplayer I was and I was watching people commit to colleges where I knew I could play.''
Buckshaw had spent two years keeping his head up and convinced that things would work out, "but my dream was really to play college ball,'' he said. "I wanted to go to Stony Brook.''
It was the same Stony Brook that had looked at him as a freshman and, apparently, a Stony Brook that hadn't forgotten. There was no scholarship, but there was a guaranteed spot.
"After my second surgery, I almost didn't want them to approach me'' because he wasn't 100 percent, Buckshaw said. "But they liked my one start before I went down with the ACL, and my coaches' words had gone a long way.''
Buckshaw couldn't say no. Those surgeries actually had forged a path for him. Stony Brook is known for medicine, and he now wanted to go into a medical field and return the favor for all the help he'd gotten over the years.
Oh, and he wants to pitch, too.
"I enjoy being in control of the game,'' he said. "I enjoy when people have to face me to get on base. I want to challenge them.''
It's an intimidating prospect for batters. After all, Buckshaw knows a thing or two about challenges.