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Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Stilson overcomes shoulder injury to prosper again
MANCHESTER -- John Stilson rewrote the record book at Texas A&M, throwing so hard that, well, he threw out his shoulder.
And kept on pitching.
A month before the 2011 draft, Stilson tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder against Dallas Baptist, a non-conference game. He stayed on the mound, ignoring the burn, and finished five scoreless innings that night.
A soldier-like Stilson missed his next scheduled start before taking on rival Texas, fighting through the pain and walking seven batters. Eventually he was shut down during the Big 12 tourney.
Turned out Stilson, who led the nation with a 0.80 ERA in 2010, suffered a “SLAP tear,” an acronym for superior labrum (tear) from anterior to posterior. Essentially, a ring of cartilage was worn out like an old brake pad.
The 6-foot-3 righty, making his Fisher Cats home debut tonight against the Reading Phillies, slipped to the third round in the 2011 draft and was scooped up by the Blue Jays. Looking back, Stilson doesn't regret the manner in which his injury was handled — when the spirit of competition trumped common sense.
“I knew I was hurt, for sure. I felt it on one pitch. I probably should have stopped right then, but I kept going and threw three or four more games. It kept getting worse and worse, but that's the type of pitcher I am. I'm not coming out unless you pull me off the field,” Stilson said.
“I went out there and tried to help out my teammates. It ended up hurting me more than it helped me, but that's all in the past now. Everything happens for a reason. I'm just thankful the Blue Jays gave me this opportunity.”
Stilson never had surgery, thanks to a second opinion provided by renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who felt a 10-month rehabilitation program would be enough to revamp Stilson's shoulder. It worked.
“I'm 100 percent now. It all worked out good for me,” said Stilson, who made 13 starts for Single-A Dunedin this season, going 3-0 (2.82 ERA).
Was Stilson overworked by his college coach? Tales from Texas A&M certainly beg the question.
He once threw 30 pitches against Dartmouth at Coral Gables, Fla., waited through a one-hour rain delay, and kept on pitching to earn a win. Later that night, he earned a save against Miami.
Stilson said his college coach, two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Rob Childress, never pressured him into taking the ball. Asked if it's fair to question the coach for overworking him, he said, “They're in a tough spot. They either have to win or they get fired. They have to win ball games to make a living and support their family. I understand. It was also my choice to go out there and pitch.”
The 21-year-old Stilson, who throws in the mid-90s, has only been a full-time pitcher for a few years. He began his college career as a shortstop, playing at Texarkana College, before being recruited to play at powerhouse Texas A&M.
The newcomer, who joined the Fisher Cats on the road last week, has barely had time to settle into Manchester. He was happy to learn his favorite actor, Adam Sandler, hails from the Queen City. (Stilson's favorite movie? Happy Gilmore.) So what can we expect from Stilson's debut at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium tonight?
“I've got a decent fastball, and my secondary stuff isn't that great, but my deal is that I compete. I'm going to beat you that way,” he said. “I'm going out there to fight on every pitch. I'm never going to give in. If I'm losing 10-0, I'm still going to give it everything I have.”
Stilson will be opposed by Reading lefty Mario Hollands, called up from Single-A, who'll be making his Double-A debut in the 7:05 p.m. contest.
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Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @graymatter11.