Grabbing the Bull by the horns

Pitcher Tommy Peterson has elevated his fastball to a maximum velocity of 96 miles per hour and has struck out 40 batters in 28 1/3 innings as a result. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Tommy Peterson had yet to pitch in his first collegiate baseball game when he fully tore his ulnar collateral ligament. 

It was after only his second bullpen session with USF in the fall of 2012, his freshman year, that he felt unbearable pain coursing through his arm.

“I had never been through anything like that before, I had never had surgery or arm trouble before that year when I hurt my elbow,” Peterson said. “It was frustrating not being able to play my freshman year, but everything happens for a reason.”

Peterson had partially torn the ligament in March of his senior year at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, but doctors advised him to rehab through the injury so he could avoid Tommy John surgery. 

Named after the first pitcher to receive the surgery in 1974, the surgery used to be the kiss of death for high-velocity pitchers such as Peterson. 

According to the New York Times, John and others like him were given a 1 percent chance to recover from the injury back then, but recent studies have shown that now, more than 80 percent of pitchers now return to at least their level of play prior to the injury.

After discovering he had partially torn the ligament in his senior season, Peterson was worried about his future in college baseball. 

“I’d by lying if I said losing my scholarship didn’t cross my mind,” Peterson said. “I thought about it, but the coaches talked to me and assured me I wouldn’t lose my scholarship. It was a blessing to still have this opportunity.”

Now, Peterson is nearly 18 months removed from the surgery and pitching better than ever. The redshirt sophomore has saved a conference-leading 12 games and owns a 1.59 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. 

“It’s a huge confidence boost (having Peterson),” pitching coach Billy Mohl said. “When you’ve got a guy with a sub-2 ERA, you feel pretty confident.”

But while Peterson said he’s an even better pitcher than before he underwent Tommy John, the road back to the pitching mound was a long one. 

“Day in and day out, it was pretty difficult,” Peterson said. “I started out with simple wrist movements and building forearm strength until I got full range of motion with my arm. Then I moved into long toss, pitching and then finally building back my arm strength.”

While the physical aspect of rehabilitation was a daily grind for the 6-foot-1, 205-pound pitcher, sitting idly by on the sidelines was unfamiliar territory. 

“The hardest and longest part was sitting through the whole season, realizing I couldn’t play, watching everyone else,” Peterson said. “I used it as a learning experience, learning how it’s played at this level. It definitely helped to sit back and watch for a year.”

Fellow reliever Jordan Strittmatter said even though Peterson’s injury sidelined him for the entire season, he didn’t let it discourage him from doing his part as a Bull.

“He was always here every day, getting his conditioning and rehab in,” Strittmatter said. “He’s always been a great teammate to have, always supporting us. Freshman year, he was doing whatever he could to help us out.”

He didn’t travel with the team, but he was in the stands at each home game, tasked with keeping pitch counts and handling the radar gun. But Peterson used his time for more than simply recording pitch speeds. 

“I tried to look at hitter’s tendencies,” he said. “It was about me trying to figure out how I wanted to attack the game when I did get healthy.”

He was told it would take over a year to fully rehabilitate, but he was back to pitching bullpen sessions in a mere seven months. 

Peterson returned for the 2014 season and was used as both a reliever and starter, appearing in 17 games, but starting only seven. 

He finished the season with a 4.30 ERA in 46 innings, and when coach Mark Kingston and his staff took over before this season, his role on the team was up in the air. 

“We did our research,” Mohl said. “The coaching staff all put in their input and we looked at his numbers as a starter last year and they were pedestrian, nothing great. We threw him in some one inning outings prior to the season and he looked really good in that role.”

Peterson, who Mohl said averages 88-91 miles per hour on his fastball as a starter, said he prefers his new job. 

“My tools are better as a reliever,” Peterson said. “I don’t have to pace myself over the course of a game, I can just go out there and blow it all out over one or two innings.” 

As a closer, Peterson said he consistently throws 92-94 miles per hour and when he needs to ramp it up, he can reach as high as 96. 

The decision to put Peterson in the closer role became a lot easier when Strittmatter, who had been pegged as the closer, encountered arm problems. 

“We didn’t plan on that right away,” Mohl said. “We were banking on Jordan Strittmatter being the closer, as he put up really good numbers last year, but he’s dealt with some arm issues that haven’t allowed him to have the success he’s had in the past.”

Strittmatter said he has battled through tendinitis that occurred as a result of wear and tear over time. 

The right-handed senior owns a 4.61 ERA through 13 2/3 innings compared to a 1.93 ERA in 28 innings last season.

Even though Peterson wasn’t the first choice for the job, the results have been everything the coaching staff could have hoped for.

“We needed a closer,” Mohl said. “The hardest outs to get are the last three and that’s how Tommy evolved into that. He was the next best option and he’s taken the bull by the horns to say the least.”

Mohl said Peterson’s success at the back end of the bullpen is partly due to his new role and what it allows him to do. 

“When you’re going in to hopefully face three hitters, you can let it fly,” Mohl said. “If he goes out there and tries to throw 95 every pitch, he’d be worn out by the third inning.”

But while his limited workload allows him to give it his all every time he takes the mound, Mohl and Peterson both agreed his newfound success is due to the work he put in over this past offseason. 

When conditioning first began, Mohl said it was apparent Peterson wasn’t physically where he needed to be. 

“He knew he was out of shape,” Mohl said. “After the first few condition drills we did, it was obvious. We got with our strength coach and he stuck with it and the results have shown.”

After a full offseason of workouts, Peterson not only got in shape, but also added enough arm strength to propel his fastball to new heights. 

With the added velocity, opposing hitters have had a hard time making contact against Peterson. 

The right-hander has struck out 40 hitters in 28 1/3 innings compared to 30 strikeouts in 46 innings last season. 

“If I had to (pick a favorite pitch), I have to go with my fastball,” Peterson said. “I like to challenge the hitter with my fastball. There’s not many better feelings than blowing a fastball by a hitter.”

Peterson also throws a change-up and a slider, which he spent significant time improving over the offseason, but said he is primarily a fastball-heavy pitcher.

Strittmatter said Peterson’s evolution into the team’s closer has elevated him to new levels as a pitcher. 

“I think this year he’s more confident in his stuff,” Strittmatter said. “His velocity has also climbed a bit, so that definitely helped. He’s a lot more in the zone. I see a completely different pitcher than I did last year as far as confidence, staying in the strike zone and going after guys.”

Over halfway through his redshirt sophomore season, the Bulls are in first in the AAC with an eye on a potential NCAA Tournament bid. 

With several high-pressure situations likely in the near future, Mohl said he isn’t worried how Peterson will handle the moment. 

“The ninth inning is different from any other inning and he’s mentally mature enough to handle it,” Mohl said. “Nothing really gets to him and that’s the type of guy you want out there in the ninth.

“Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he’s composed and really good at handling the situation at hand.”

Peterson has matured into a dominating closer in the three years since his original injury and the faith USF invested in him is paying off. 

“He’s as down to earth as you can be,” Mohl said. “He’s enjoyable to be around and always tries to keep the mood light. He’s just what you want from a closer, never too high, never too low. He’s a joy to coach.”