Jan. 30, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Whodathunk that when King and Pitts – the Yellow Jackets’ top two weekend starting pitchers — went down with season-ending injuries in Tech’s first and second ACC games of last season that Tech would not only survive, but flourish?
Sure, the Jackets scuffled through the regular season. But look back at the end result: Tech upset the field to win the ACC tournament.
The postseason brought delirious joy, and King & Pitts – whose names together sound law firm eligible – were smiling Thursday in talking about their returns. Both share the goal of playing when the Jackets open the season Feb. 13 against St. John’s. King appears a lock to pull it off.
But geez, that first weekend of the ACC was miserable last season. The Jackets dropped two of three.
After King left the March 7 opener against Wake Forest with just two innings registered in what would become a 9-2 loss, it was unclear for a while how severe his left injury shoulder was; he would not pitch again in 2014.
“At first I didn’t know the season was over for me as we were trying to figure out exactly what was wrong and how long it would take to heal,” said King, a junior.
The Yin & Yang of Tech’s pitching staff – Pitts is a 6-foot-5 senior right hander from Moultrie and King is a 5-11 junior lefty from Murfreesboro, Tenn. – did not set out upon the same courses of diagnosis/recovery.
It was obvious soon after Pitts blew out his right elbow the day after King’s injury that the righty was done for the year. In what became a 12-8 loss to the Demon Deacons, he blew up his right ulnar collateral elbow ligament.
King’s diagnosis – a torn shoulder ligament — took a while to nail down. The ligament grew back together, and he did not need surgery.
Pitts underwent “Tommy John” ligament replacement surgery fairly quickly.
“To go down for the rest of the year and be rehabbing the rest of the fall was kind of tough on me, but I had guys around me,” said Pitts, a senior. “[Tech pitcher] Devin Stanton went through it two years ago, and he kind of guided me and let me know what I needed to do or what was going to happen.
“[Doctors] took a hamstring tendon out of my left leg and put it in my right elbow, and took out the ulnar collateral ligament.”
King tried late last spring to return to action, but did not get back to throwing in earnest until mid-summer. He participated in fall practice, and is likely to be available when the season begins in two weeks.
“I had a full fall. I was able to pitch,” he said. “I threw four innings in the last scrimmage, which was two more than we thought I would be able to throw.
“I anticipate being able to throw 100 percent; there’s nothing that leads me to believe I won’t be full-on on opening day.”
Pitts is doing well considering the severity of his injury and surgery, yet may not be available to head coach Danny Hall at the beginning of the season.
“I’m a little ahead of schedule. I’m hoping to be available at the beginning of the season,” Pitts said. “I’ve been throwing an inning in scrimmages. I’m just trying to build myself up, and hopefully I’ll be game-ready at the beginning of the season.”
Hall is feeling good about both pitchers to the point where he spends more time worrying about the back end of his staff than the front.
It’s too early to know where King or Pitts will fit, and their roles might evolve as the season unwinds based upon their stamina.
The head coach is more concerned with replacing his departed co-closers.
“If we start those guys, it gives us a little more flexibility [to move others around],” Hall said. “If I lose sleep at night, it’s who’s going to fill the roles of Dusty Isaacs and Sam Clay because those two guys were very instrumental in our success last year. As of today, I don’t have the answer.
“I think this weekend and next weekend will go a long way toward helping us decide who are going to be the guys who we stick at the back end to get critical outs late in the game.”
King, who went 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in four starts last season after earning ACC All-Academic team honors as a freshman when he appeared in 24 games, started 10, and went 6-5 with a 4.04 ERA, is looking forward to being involved.
He also is, in a way, thankful for his down time.
“Cole was injured at the same time, and we spent the whole summer here trying to get healthy and stronger,” he said. “It was really tough, but at the same time we grew closer and got to know each other well.”
Pitts, who was 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA in four starts last season to build a career mark of 12-7 with a 4.44 ERA, will leap at whatever role he’s asked to fill. He’s tweaked his mechanics to take stress off of his elbow, shoulder and arm as well.
“I’m staying back a little bit more on my back leg and driving more. Coach [Jason] Howell showed me you always want to use your legs more than your shoulder, arm and elbow. My top half didn’t really change. itching is mostly legs. We hardly do any upper body work.”