A year ago, Ryan Radue's No. 15 jersey hung in the UConn dugout during every game. When he returned to wear it later in the season, it was too big.
The long months of chemotherapy and radiation had wiped out the cancer that was discovered in Radue's neck and leg but had left him thin and had taken the velocity from his fastball. He was determined to pitch for UConn, but he couldn't make it back before the end of the 2016 baseball season.
Even in October, the goal seemed as distant as ever.
"He was in great shape, but he almost took it too far, riding a bicycle and running, and he'd lost a lot of mass," coach Jim Penders said. "We didn't know if he'd be on the travel squad, to be honest."
Over the winter, Radue took on a new weight training and nutritional program with strength and conditioning coach Joel DeMarco.
"I decided to be heavier than I'd ever been," Radue said.
And better than ever. Radue not only beat cancer and resumed his baseball career, he has become a more integral part of UConn's relief corps.
By the time the new season was upon the Huskies, The 6-foot-3 Radue was up to 225 pounds, cutting an imposing figure, and his fastball was again touching 95 mph, as it was before the cancer was discovered in August 2015.
In the first game of the season, Feb. 17, Penders signaled for the righthander during the eighth inning of a 5-3 win over UMass Lowell in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Goosebumps!— UConn Baseball (@UConnBaseball) February 17, 2017
Here comes Ryan Radue in the eighth!
"Back at it, let's see how hard I could throw and throw some strikes," Radue said.
It was his first outing in a UConn jersey in 646 days.
"I knew Ryan's father was there, and I was trying not to look at him because I was afraid I'd get too emotional," Penders said.
"I remember everyone in the dugout just kind of looking at each other," catcher Alex LeFevre said. "And it was like, 'We're just playing a game. This kid did something that is absolutely amazing.'"
Radue gave up two hits and a run that night, but with subsequent outings he has grown stronger, and sharper.In a three-game series at Seton Hall, he pitched a scoreless eighth inning, striking out two, to help preserve a 2-1 win on March 24, and in the series finale March 26, he entered with the bases loaded and no outs, and got a popup and two strikeouts.
"It was the first real time I saw him show outgoing emotion," pitching coach Josh McDonald said. "He's very stoic, but he was pumping his fist and yelling and I thought, 'This kid just fought to live, and to him, this is more important.' ... He used to put so much pressure on himself. He's a perfectionist. He gets great grades. Sometimes it would hurt him. Right now, he's really having fun with it. He's had some tough outings, some tough luck, umpires calls, but I think with everything he's dealt with, this is gravy."
Radue had five strikeouts in two innings in that 4-0 UConn victory on March 26. In the first American Athletic Conference series, Radue picked up a win on April 1 and a save the next day as the Huskies swept East Carolina.
"I always knew I'd be back out there," he said. "And I made it a reality."
Radue, 22, from Appleton, Wisconsin, continued his studies through his long fight with cancer. He graduated in December 2015 and is now a graduate student in accounting. He pitched for the Huskies in 2013, 2014 and 2015, a total of 28 games and 32 1/3 innings with a 3.06 ERA. The cancer was discovered after Radue began feeling soreness in his left knee before the fall season of 2015.
So far this season, as he has assumed the setup role for closer John Russell, Radue has been in 14 games with a 3.48 ERA, with 24 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings.
The new strength and velocity, Penders said, has given Radue a faster spin on his curveball, which has become a put-away pitch.
"He's been great for us this year," said third baseman Willy Yahn. "It's just been sensational to see Ryan go out there, doing what he does best and loving it as well. I got goose bumps from that outing at Seton Hall. It was amazing. He may very well have made himself better than he was before. He's just got that work ethic, and he was so determined to be as good, if not better than he was before. He's someone I look up to, and everyone on the team looks up to for inspiration."
Radue passed another milestone Sunday — his first home appearance at J.O. Christian Field since April 17, 2015 — with a scoreless ninth inning to finish UConn's 4-0 win over Memphis and another AAC sweep.
The Huskies (19-10, 6-0 AAC) are sitting atop the league and are ranked No. 25 in the nation by Baseball America. Radue could only watch as his teammates won the conference tournament and played in the NCAA tournament last season.
"It's clicking right now," Radue said. "We need to carry that next couple of months, get that conference championship and go far in the tournament. Last year, we got a nice taste of it."
When Radue spoke to a crowd at the White Coat Gala, a fundraiser for UConn Health, a year ago this week, he was nearing the end of his radiation treatments. He stressed the importance of "being where your feet are," or living in the moment. He has been pitching what he preached.
"In years past, he would let the game speed up," Penders said. "He's so smart that he was always thinking about what could go wrong, not what could go right. Now, he's not thinking about what could go wrong or right, he's just completely absorbed in that one second, because he knows that's all we're guaranteed."
This article is written by Dom Amore from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.