Pitchers Grijalva, Baek return healthy from surgeries for 2012

Two starting pitchers for Biola’s baseball team are back on the field this season after spending the 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.


Mike Villa

Biola pitchers, Jeff Grijalva and Chris Baek talk about their experience of being injured and working their way back into the rotation. | Job Ang/THE CHIMES

Conner Penfold, Writer

Biola pitchers, Jeff Grijalva and Chris Baek talk about their experience of being injured and working their way back into the rotation. | Job Ang/THE CHIMES

Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, a medical practice now known simply as Tommy John surgery, has been performed on hundreds of baseball players since its first success in 1974, according to The Sporting News. This procedure, which was deemed miraculous at the time, involves anywhere from 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.

This was the reality for two of Biola’s starting pitchers, juniors Jeff Grijalva and Chris Baek.

Both Grijalva and Baek spent the entire 2011 season rehabilitating from the surgery. Their throwing arms were both injured about a week apart a year earlier.

“I started off the season really well,” said Baek, who went 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in his first three starts of 2010. “After my third start I woke up the next morning and could not move my elbow. I was throwing maybe 72 [mph] and I could barely get [the ball] to home plate.”

Grijalva experienced a similar hindrance, recalling a rainy afternoon on the mound.

“I had never really had any arm problems,” said Grijalva, who had just transferred to Biola from the University of Southern California. “It was just a rainy day. I slipped and it was muddy and I felt a twitch.”

Grijalva continued to throw that game, even pitching in his next couple starts before being pulled from the rotation.

“There was a point where I couldn’t even throw the ball anymore. The pain was just too much,” Grijalva said.

Tommy John surgery derails 2011 season

Both injuries led to the need for Tommy John surgery, a process in which the damaged elbow ligament is replaced with extra ligaments from other parts of the body. Grijalva underwent the most common process, having the torn ligament replaced with a tendon from the same wrist, while Baek’s was swapped for a ligament in his right hamstring.

The two endured the 12- to 18-month regimen of grueling rehab, each experiencing setbacks at separate times. But Baek says the two were able to guide each other through it, making the recovery process a little easier.

“It definitely was nice to have someone to go through it with,” Baek said. “If I had gone through it by myself it would not have been easy.”

A silver lining exists with Tommy John surgery. Pitchers have been known to return from surgery almost healthier than before, describing their arms as stronger and their endurance as elevated.

Success comes soon for Grijalva and Baek

Grijalva’s complete game last Thursday, March 8 against Vanguard University is a resounding testament to the theory.

The right-hander threw 116 pitches, striking out five and holding the Lions to just five hits and two runs en route to his third win of the season, and first complete game of his college career. But Grijalva will tell you with confidence, despite pitching nine innings, he could have continued.

“I honestly wasn’t fatigued the next day,” Grijalva said. “Prior to the surgery that would not have been the case … but I honestly could have gone 15 innings.”

Baek, despite a 3-1 record and sub-4 ERA in his first six starts this season, said the road to recovery has still been challenging.

“For me, I still haven’t reached my full potential so I can’t say I’m 100 percent yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I can still improve on and my arm strength is getting better every week.”

Senior catcher Mike Lopez echoed Baek’s claims.

“[Baek’s arm is] getting better but it isn’t what it was before,” Lopez said.

Baek, as well as most pitchers who undergo the surgery, say though they are able to pitch on a regular basis after rehab, a return to 100 percent is not expected until two or three years following the procedure.

“The problem is that my fingers don’t feel the same as they did,” Grijalva said, referring to damage to the ulnar nerve, a complication common with Tommy John surgery. “My release point is still wrong so it’s taken some time adjusting to that.”

Grijalva and Baek have been staples in the rotation this season, and will look to further their recoveries and the team’s recent success as they both take the mound in Thursday’s doubleheader against California State University San Marcos.

“It’s something I don’t wish on anyone but it’s kind of a rite of passage nowadays for a pitcher,” Baek said. “It definitely taught me a lot of patience.”

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