Back in the game
Ithaca’s No. 1 pitcher Adams bounces back just in time
APPLETON, Wis. -- Ithaca right-hander Jasper Adams pitched with controlled abandon on Day 3 of the 2013 NCAA Division III Baseball Championship at Fox Cities Stadium, because he had to.
The afternoon meeting between his seventh-ranked Bombers and 10th-ranked Kean was win-or-go-home. Losers trudged aboard a bus bound for home, while the winner meets 14th-ranked Southern Maine in Monday’s Day 4 action. And, in Adams’ case, he helped power Ithaca into the next round.
“Big step [Sunday],” Adams said of the 3-1 victory. “Felt great out there. Kind of a whirlwind -- out there [the] first inning, one, two three -- and just kind of kept going after that.”
That’s the simplistic version. The reality, aside from the Bombers continuing their DIII title pursuit, is that Adams (7-0) now is whole again.
Twenty months ago, in September of 2011, Dr. Daniel DiChristina of Crouse SportsMedicine in Syracuse, N.Y., reconstructed the ulnar collateral ligament in Adams’ right elbow. It’s serious surgery -- yes, Tommy John -- with a serous rehabilitation, and it cost the 6-foot-4, 190-pound senior from Amherst, Mass., his 2012 season.
Easing back into shape this year has taken longer than he’d like, but he appears to be peaking at the right time, rediscovering his touch during Ithaca’s postseason.
“I think a lot of it is the unknown and caution, sometimes in pitching,” Ithaca head coach George Valesente said. “So once he got over that and felt the arm was good and he was ready to roll, he could start to get back to where he was.
“Literally, had he not had [surgery], he would’ve been our No. 1 guy this year. But it’s great to have my No. 3 guy as my possible No. 1 guy.”
The Bombers haven’t missed Adams unduly. As New York Regional champions, they improved to 40-7 after Sunday’s victory against Kean and look to advance much further. But the big guy brings it, which his teammates know. Sophomore right-hander Jimmy Wagner, the current closer, stood in for Adams as a starter during the latter’s long recuperation and Adams’ resurgence has allowed Wagner to strengthen Ithaca’s bullpen.
The two combined to overpower Kean, Adams throttling batters for seven innings and Wagner slamming the door the rest of the way.
“We weren’t sure how he was going to be,” Wagner said of Adams. “He came back and he was doing all right in the beginning of the year, but his last four or five starts coming in to the regionals and the [NCAA tournament], he’s been lights out like you saw [on Sunday].”
“It’s really been a long road,” Adams said. “It’s been a mental hurdle that I’ve had to get over and my last four or five starts, I’ve gotten over that and the results have been there. I’m still looking for that feel in my curve ball. That’s not quite back yet. But definitely my fastball and my changeup have been my bread and butter lately.”
Adams’ right elbow began to unravel during his junior year of high school. He was able to rehab a partial ligament tear without surgery, but a summer-league game three years ago reintroduced the old pain.
“It felt kind of like a twang in your elbow and, ‘Oh no,’” Adams said. “I threw one more fastball and I just knew something was wrong.”
An MRI confirmed it, with doctors telling him surgery was mandatory if he wanted to pitch. Mentally, Adams says he struggled when he returned to competition earlier this season, chasing mechanics while trying to keep the ball down.
“You kind of protect it a little bit and I think that’s what my problem was in the beginning of the year,” he said. “As opposed to just going out and throwing the ball. Something just clicked one of those days and I got my mechanics.”
The low point came on April 16, when four first-inning hits chased Adams from a game against Rochester.
“And I was down on myself, but I realized, ‘You gotta keep your head up, you’ll come back, you’ll get through this,’” he said. “And I went out my next start against St. John Fisher pitched six or seven good innings and my confidence was back.”
Adams says he’s okay if he doesn’t resume power pitching. These days he’s honing his changeup, encouraged by Valesente, who calls it the best pitch in baseball. He demonstrated post-game Sunday, mimicking a hitter flailing with off-speed confusion.
“Once you get that down and keep guys guessing and get their timing off -- get them to hit it back here and back here -- that’s what it’s all about,” Adams said.
“Just having that extra arm going seven innings every game, one run, it’s unbelievable,” Wagner said. “It puts a lot of pressure off the hitters and the rest of the pitchers.”