Oregon State's Rasmussen plans to overcome injury
CORVALLIS — Life was lining up smoothly for Drew Rasmussen.
The Oregon State pitcher had made what appeared to be a seamless recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery in March 2016. In eight appearances, four starts and 27 innings after his return to the mound for the Beavers last April, Rasmussen went 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA, five walks, 26 strikeouts and a .192 opponents' batting average.
In late June, Rasmussen pitched twice in the College World Series. He threw a perfect ninth inning, with two strikeouts, to get the save in an opening 6-5 win over Cal State Fullerton. Then he pitched the final 4 1/3 innings in a 6-1 elimination-game loss to Louisiana State, allowing one run on three hits, with no walks and two strikeouts.
"The arm felt great," Rasmussen says.
A week before the CWS, the Tampa Bay Rays had chosen him with the 31st overall pick in the major league draft. The world seemed to be the 22-year-old right-hander's oyster.
From Omaha, "I came back to Corvallis, played catch with (OSU teammates Max Englebrekt and Jake Thompson) for a couple of days," Rasmussen says. "Then I flew to Tampa for my physical."
And his world exploded. He flunked the test.
An MRI revealed a torn ligament in the same elbow that had been repaired 15 months earlier.
"I was shocked," Rasmussen says. "I just had no idea anything was wrong."
It was a terrible blow to one of the most promising young Beaver pitchers ever. Rasmussen was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and first-team all-Pac-12 selection in 2015, throwing the only perfect game in OSU history.
After receiving results from the MRI, the Rays chose not to sign him, though not revealing the reason why.
The injury cost Rasmussen a likely signing bonus of more than $2 million.
The Spokane native spent July and August working in a landscaping business in the Portland area.
"It helped keep my mind off of things," he says. "There were a lot of 'what ifs' and stuff. But with the job, I was busy."
Rasmussen and his parents, Mark and Kim, also researched the names and resumes of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country. They chose Dr. Keith Meister of Arlington, Texas, who serves as the head team physician with the Texas Rangers.
On Aug. 23, Rasmussen underwent his second full ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.
The question begs to be asked: How could Rasmussen pitch so well, without pain, if his elbow ligament was torn? After gaining information from famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Rasmussen explains it this way:
"Sometimes when your adrenaline is pumping, your body has the ability to mask what's truly going on. They think that's probably what happened with me. It's not the first case they've seen. Dr. Andrews said it's actually pretty typical. Guys can pitch eight to 10 weeks with no pain. But most of the time, you'll start feeling it down the road."
Does Rasmussen feel he was rushed back into action too soon?
"Not at all," he says. "Our rehab protocol (to return to pitching) was nine to 14 months. I came back at 13 (months), so I was on the later end of things.
"Before the UCLA series (April 21-23), we'd had a second opinion from a well-renowned surgeon who works at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic. He gave me the 'all clear.' When two doctors check off and the body feels good, why not?"
In the 40-plus years since the original Tommy John surgery — yep, the test-tube lefty was named Tommy John — dozens of pitchers have fully recovered and either returned or made it to the major leagues. A majority of them come back as good or stronger than before.
But two Tommy John surgeries?
The odds for full recovery aren't quite so high.
One who did it, though, was former OSU standout Jace Fry, who has overcome two Tommy John surgeries (2012 and '16) and made it to the big leagues this season, pitching 11 games for the Chicago White Sox.
"Jace was always around my first couple of falls (at Oregon State) after his minor league season," Rasmussen says. "We talked to him a little this summer. I was mostly curious who did his second surgery.
"Now seeing him having success and making it to the majors, that's a great inspiration. He's a great guy to look up to."
It's not unusual for a pitcher to have a second Tommy John surgery, OSU head coach Pat Casey learned.
"When we went to Surprise (Arizona) last year, 'Case' met with some of the Mariners (medical staff)," Rasmussen says. "They said if you blow out (the elbow) once, they expect there to be a second one down the road at some point.
"But with how baseball is evolving, there is a lot less fear about getting elbow surgery. I've been taught if you can keep your shoulder healthy, your elbow is probably going to go, anyway."
Rasmussen has worn a protective brace since the surgery, but will shed it this week. He continues the slow process of returning to the mound.
"We're not rushing things," he says. "There is no time line. We're just trying to get me healthy again."
Rasmussen won't pitch next season. He's in school this term, doing therapy and rehabilitation with Oregon State's athletic training staff and helping mentor the Beavers' pitchers.
"We rely on younger guys to pitch every year, and I love talking to them," he says. "We're going to have find some young guys who can contribute and earn a solid role next season. It's a ton of fun for me to help bring them along."
Casey is thrilled to have Rasmussen with the program, even if he's not pitching.
"We think the world of Drew," says Casey, OSU's coach for 24 years. "He's one of the best pitchers I've coached, and that includes only a handful of guys. He's a top-notch young man and a great student. He'll be a leader for us next season. He'll be around, offering advice and giving guys encouragement. That's the kind of kid he is.
"He'll recover from this. He will throw again and will, without question, conquer this thing."
Rasmussen may get chosen in the 2018 MLB draft. If not, he could return to Oregon State as a redshirt senior for the 2019 season, which would give him an opportunity to display the health of his arm to scouts.
"Pitching here again is not out of the realm of possibility," says Rasmussen, who is on track to graduate next summer with a degree in finance. "That's so far down the road, though. I have to get healthy first and see what happens next June, and then we'll have a better idea."
Rasmussen intends to follow Fry to the major leagues.
"That's still the dream," Rasmussen says. "The dream hasn't changed — the path has.
"I'm not too concerned about that. It will take care of itself down the road. Being young, I still have the ability to recover and have a great career ahead of me."