By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
BUFFALO, New York – Midway through his junior season – at the end of April last year – Josh Shepley was informed that he wouldn’t be able to play baseball during his senior year at Canisius College.
The right-hander from Windsor, Ont., had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and was going to have to undergo Tommy John surgery, an all-too-common procedure for pitchers requiring a grueling rehabilitation process, necessitating longer than a year for recovery. Shepley went under the knife last June, making a comeback for this season impossible.
“We were playing at Youngstown State [in Ohio] and I went three innings, and I threw nothing but fastballs,” Shepley said of his April 30, 2016 start. “The first time through the order, all fastballs, and I was doing pretty well. Then in the fourth inning, I threw two fastballs to a guy, and then I threw a slider and all of a sudden, the nerves in my fingers just shot.
“I was having elbow issues for years, but it was never this bad. I just figured it wasn’t anything too serious. Then all of a sudden, I went from pitching really well to not being able to find the zone at all. I just started walking guys, and no matter what pitch I was throwing I was kind of subconsciously fidgeting my wrist. Coach [Mike] McRae noticed it and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And I said I had no idea.
“So he took me out and the trainer did a couple tests and figured I needed an MRI. I got the MRI and sent it to a specialist and he told me [my ulnar collateral ligament] was about 80 per cent torn and I needed surgery. When I got opened up he said that with all the scar tissue and everything, it had been torn for a while. He didn’t know how I was pitching for as long as I was.”
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound pitcher had the procedure performed by Dr. Jason Smith, a sports-specific orthopedic surgeon and the head physician of the Toronto Blue Jays, with a specialization in ligament reconstruction and arthroscopic procedures of the shoulder, elbow and knee. Among his accolades, the Canadian surgeon also completed a one-year post-graduate fellowship with Dr. James Andrews – the most prestigious Tommy John specialist – and is one of a small handful of doctors north of the border who perform the surgery.
Smith replaced Shepley’s elbow ligament with one from his knee, which was painful but the doctor told him that it was, “a strong ligament, and he was just hoping that my bone wouldn’t crack when they were feeding it through because it was big, so I hope that’s a good sign,” the young righty said.
Though the pain began for Shepley after throwing his slider in the game against the Penguins, he believes that a number of factors could have contributed to the wear and tear in his throwing arm.
“Growing up, I was throwing all-year round,” the 22-year-old said. “I played football, I played baseball, and [at Belle River District] High School, I threw javelin. So I was always throwing. It was just an accumulation of everything, and then I got a new slider halfway through my sophomore year, maybe that had something to do with it. It could really have been anything.”
Since having the surgery, Shepley feels as though he’s been rehabbing at a snail’s pace. He started in a cast for two weeks before spending another six weeks in a brace, the brace opened slightly each week to give more mobility before finally shedding the equipment. He is just as nervous as he is anxious to get back out on a mound again.
“You just crawl,” he said. “It’s so slow. It’s tough but I’m just trying to stay positive. There’s not a lot I can do. No one’s really going to lose sleep over me getting injured, so why should I?
“Absolutely I’m nervous. Every time I throw it makes me nervous because you never know when the next pitch could just screw something up. Thinking that I might have already pitched my last game kind of sucks. But I’m not really rushing it because I have a lot of time until the next season starts, so I’m hoping and I’m trusting the process.”
Set to graduate in the coming weeks with a degree in finance – and a career 8-8 record and a 5.26 ERA over 36 appearances and 130 innings, with 54 walks and 97 strikeouts – the Golden Griffins hurler has already looked into his options to continue his college career, continuing rehabilitation with the idea that he will be able to come back and contribute for Canisius once again.
“I would hate to think that I went through all this rehab just to never pitch again, so I really hope that I can,” Shepley said. “That’s the plan right now…There are a lot of variables, like whether I can come back stronger. If I can’t really come back, if I feel like I’m not really going to contribute to the team, I might not. I might start my career in something else.
“But if I come back feeling healthy and strong, I don’t see why not. I could go into grad school and play one more year and see what happens and have fun. All my friends who have graduated told me just to never graduate because the real world sucks, so I’m trying to stay for as long as possible.”
Shepley has learned a lot about himself throughout the injury and recovery process, as well as through his four years – so far – at Canisius, and doesn’t believe that he can understate the evolution he’s experienced throughout his time at college.
“You think of how much you change from the beginning of high school to the end of high school, from college to the end of college is the exact same thing,” he said. “You go through a lot of big milestones, entering your twenties, becoming an adult, and you have a lot more expected of you.
“Baseball-wise, I really learned a lot about the game. I learned to appreciate it a lot more. Mentally, I really went through a big change, especially over just the course of this injury. You really have to mentally toughen up if you want to succeed here, and you really don’t have a choice. So I think that I did that, and hopefully it will pay off in the end.”
With almost a full four years and baseball seasons under his belt in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, it is easy to see in retrospect how valuable the experience has been for Shepley, and just how unique an opportunity he has been afforded with the Griffs.
“I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything,” he said. “People think baseball is just a game, but just with this game I’ve gotten to spend a summer in Virginia, and travel to North Carolina and Florida, see some big leaguers up close, and meet some of my best friends that I’m going to have my entire life.
“It’s so much bigger than just a game. I’ve really learned to love every aspect of it, especially during these four years. Being with these guys every single day, it’s amazing. I hope that everyone would get to experience this, but only so many people do, and I’m so glad I was lucky enough to do it.”