There’s never a guarantee that a pitcher will return from one Tommy John surgery. Coming back from two is even more difficult.
Yet 16 months after his second surgery, Nesconset’s Chris Lemorocco is back on the mound for Adelphi. He has thrown 6 1⁄3 relief innings with five hits, eight walks and three earned runs with nine strikeouts through Thursday.
“I’ve been saying it for the past two, three months,” Adelphi pitching coach Kevin Salmon said, “he’s just a walking miracle.”
Everyone remembers the tears — the ones streaming down Lemorocco’s face and the ones welling up in their own eyes on the fall 2015 day that Lemorocco attempted his first comeback.
Moments earlier, the 5-7 Lemorocco had resembled the St. John the Baptist graduate whom Adelphi coach Dom Scala had recruited. The gritty, intense righthander with a wipeout slider needed just three pitches to record a strikeout in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Three pitches later, Lemorocco felt his elbow “pop.” He knew immediately what an MRI would confirm a week later. After 16 months working toward this moment, Lemorocco had re-torn his ulnar collateral ligament.
“I walked off the mound in tears,” he said. “I guess it’s just baseball. One moment you’re on top, and the next moment baseball humbles you. It was just a weird day.”
Although data on college pitchers is not readily available, 80 percent of major leaguers who undergo one Tommy John surgery — which replaces the torn UCL with a tendon from another body part — return to MLB, according to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Dr. Stan Conte, the former Dodgers trainer and current Tommy John expert, said last week that various studies have indicated that rate falls between 65 and 75 percent for professional pitchers returning from a second surgery, known as a revision.
“It wasn’t the number that I wanted to see,” Lemorocco, 22, said. “That kind of put a little fear in me, knowing that these are pro guys who have the best trainers and workout plans in the world and the percentage is low.”
‘SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT’
The pain first seeped into Lemorocco’s elbow on April 18, 2014, during a start against Le Moyne College. Four days later, the feeling that “something wasn’t right” had not abated, but he hadn’t told the coaching staff he was hurting. Scala summoned him from the bullpen in the seventh inning at Southern Connecticut State.
“I just felt pain — no pop. I just felt pain,” Lemorocco said. “I couldn’t reach the plate. I threw four pitches right in the dirt, and they knew something was wrong.”
An MRI revealed a partial tear of the UCL, leaving Lemorocco with two options: rehab or surgery. He and his family believed surgery was the less risky choice.
“I thought I had time,” Lemorocco said. “I figured I have time to rehab and come back for the next three or four years. I didn’t expect to get hurt again.”
For eight weeks, a bulky brace stabilized Lemorocco’s right arm 24 hours a day — even while he showered and slept, he said. Then he rehabbed three times a week several hours a day for about three or four months, he said, each day growing more tedious.
“That was the toughest part,” he said, “just knowing that I had to do the same thing every single day.”
So when his UCL snapped again — fully, the second time, he said — Lemorocco questioned if he should bother attempting a comeback for his senior year. Teammate Robert Vani recalled Lemorocco shaking his head one night, as if he was wondering, “Why me?” But that was about as much as Lemorocco shared with his teammates.
“To be completely honest,” Lemorocco said, “I was probably in a state of depression for around a month.”
This was the stiffest challenge he had faced, he said, but he ultimately opted for a second surgery because he feared the regret he would feel every time he would walk past Adelphi’s ballfield. Once he reached a decision, Lemorocco attacked his recovery with full force.
“You see him go through that type of rehab, it makes me as a pitcher want to run that extra sprint because it’s like he did this, why am I not doing what I can do to be better,” said teammate Andrew Sesto. “He definitely influenced a lot of people.”
There was no guarantee Lemorocco would ever pitch again, and even if he did, he likely would be a fraction of his former self. A 2013 study of 18 major-league pitchers conducted by Conte and others concluded that starters who return from a UCL revision “reached 35 percent of their prior workload” within two full years.
Lemorocco said he could throw seven or eight innings as a freshman, when he made five starts. Now, he said, he’s limited at “an inning or two . . . just going off how I feel.”
Conte said he and a team of doctors have 125 Division I schools that have agreed to share information on players who undergo Tommy John surgery. Within a few years, Dr. Conte said, they hope to have a better understanding.
At this point, there is such a paucity of information that Dr. Conte never had come across a collegiate pitcher who had undergone a revision.
“This is the first one I’ve heard of,” Dr. Conte said.
‘I’M NOT GETTING
DRAFTED AFTER THIS’
Lemorocco made his 2017 debut on March 9, in a 16-9 win over Bloomfield College. To him and his family, the date was fitting, being the birthday of his late grandfather, John Catherall, Lemorocco’s biggest fan, according to Chris’ mom, Laura Lemorocco.
He walked one and allowed two hits and two runs in an otherwise meaningless ninth inning, coming off the mound to cheers instead of tears. After the game, he gave his parents the ball with which he recorded his first strikeout and wrapped them in hugs.
“It was probably the biggest, strongest hug I’ve ever gotten from him,” Laura said.
Lemorocco knows every pitch he throws could be his last. He has accepted that his slider — his best pitch — puts a lot of stress on his elbow. But if it pops again, at least Lemorocco will not harbor any regrets.
“I’m a senior. I’m not getting drafted after this,” Lemorocco said. “If it takes me coming in to throw sliders to get people out and win a game, I’m going to do it.”
That’s a guarantee.