DURHAM — Tommy John surgery is no longer a worst-case scenario for ballplayers. One study shows the elbow procedure — ulnar collateral ligament replacement — is most often performed these days on teens between the ages of 15 to 19.
Coginchaug’s Kolby Pascarelli is one of them. The 16-year-old hard-throwing, left-handed pitcher had Tommy John in late June. Two months earlier, he was diagnosed with a complete tear in his UCL and had no other option but to undergo the procedure first performed in 1974 on the man himself.
Unlike years ago, athletes who have this surgery are no longer considered damaged goods. Pascarelli is now many weeks into physical therapy, and the progression of his rehab will gain steam when he begins a detailed throwing program, mapped out by his surgeon, in late fall.
“Baseball is his life and Tommy John is just a part of it,” Pascarelli’s father, Keith, said. “It’s not a bump in the road, just a part of the baseball experience for him.”
A rising junior at Coginchaug, the 6-foot-23/4, 185-pound Pascarelli has a baseball future beyond the Blue Devils and his travel team, TCB of East Hartford. Still months away from his 17th birthday, he already has given a verbal commitment to Bryant University, a member of the Division I Northeast Conference.
In turn, Bryant’s coaches have told him they are pleased his elbow is repaired and will be intact long before he sets foot on campus in 2021.
Better now than later, Keith Pascarelli was told. Everyone is in a good place, especially Pascarelli.
‘SOMETHING WAS WRONG’
Four months have passed since an April 17 start at Haddam-Killingworth, when Pascarelli first sensed a pinch in his elbow during pre-game warmups. He got off to a promising start in his sophomore season both as a hitter and pitcher — he was hitting for average and power and his fastball had been clocked in the upper 80s the previous fall, while the Blue Devils had enough talent and depth to be a contender in the Shoreline Conference.
Pascarelli said he felt some discomfort in his arm a few weeks earlier but didn’t think much of it, and despite the pre-game pinch, he said he felt OK during the first two innings against H-K.
Early on in the third, however, a “stabbing pain” overtook him.
“I knew immediately that something was wrong with my elbow,” he said. “The H-K game was the first time I truly felt pain. I tried to finish the inning — it was a big game we needed to win — but I couldn’t. I remember crying on the mound … honestly, I was just (upset) because I couldn’t finish the game.
“Usually with a Tommy John injury you hear a pop. I didn’t.”
Coginchaug coach Mark Basil said there were no warning signs with Pascarelli prior to that day.
“There was nothing unusual in that game that indicated his arm was sore due to that injury,” he said. “His pitch count in that game was maybe 50. He didn’t go very deep. We were thinking, ‘OK, he doesn’t have his good stuff today.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I just don’t have it today.’ ”
Pascarelli’s outing was over, although his day was not. He was willing and able to be part of a switch into the outfield, where, ever the gamer, he laid out for a ball in the later innings and injured a rib. He said he didn’t tell anyone about it at the time. Coginchaug lost the game 9-2.
The next day, Pascarelli saw his family doctor and was sent for an MRI. He went in on that Friday, and a little more than an hour later the results were back showing the UCL was torn.
“I thought I was too young to have it be torn. I thought this just happened to older (players) and that it was just a strain and I would need physical therapy for a few weeks,” he said. “I was not really nervous about it.”
Pascarelli was able to play in the outfield after the diagnosis and he could still slug away. When H-K visited Durham on April 29, Pascarelli went 2 for 3 with a home run. Perhaps it was a case of bad luck when, two weeks later against North Branford, he was hit on the left wrist by a pitch in his first at-bat and suffered a fracture. He could no longer drive the ball with authority.
“I’d never been injured pretty much before that season,” he said.
Coginchaug went on to win 13 games but was ousted in the first round of the Class S tournament. On June 20, after school let out for the summer, Pascarelli had his UCL replaced with a tendon from his left leg.
Kyle Cifarelli, the head athletic trainer at Coginchaug, has been by the Pascarellis’ side throughout the process and was in the operating room for the surgery. Kolby’s mother, Kim, credits Cifarelli for keeping her son’s spirits up throughout the experience.
“For me, it just has to do with my philosophy and how I see treatment,” Cifarelli said. “One of the reasons I became an athletic trainer was because I really wanted to be the ground-up person so my patients know I’m really there for them. I really love the science behind what I do, and I never want anyone to feel uncomfortable.
“I had known Kolby for the entire season and I’m glad I was able to put their minds at ease. The true reward was getting to see the smile on that kid’s face and his parents’ faces, that I helped mitigate some of that fear.”
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Pascarelli’s rehab is going well and the follow-up consultations have been positive. He will be able to hit next spring, with an outside chance that he could possibly pitch in early summer.
“We were told that the injury happens, especially to people who throw hard,” said Keith Pascarelli. “We went to a Bryant game a couple of months ago and there were three kids in the Bryant dugout who had had the surgery. It’s common these days. College coaches don’t even … Coach (Steve) Owens said these things are not a surprise, like ‘better now than later.’ ”
Owens left Bryant recently after nine seasons and three NCAA tournament appearances for the head coaching job at Rutgers. The Pascarellis said they have been assured that what Kolby was offered in terms of an athletic scholarship would be honored under new coach Ryan Klosterman, adding that he is Bryant’s first verbal commitment for the 2021 recruiting class.
“We’re really happy. Bryant is what he wanted and we are excited because he’ll be so close and we’ll be able to see as many games as possible,” Keith Pascarelli said. “And Bryant’s a very good program, one of the best in the Northeast.”
Pascarelli has played in showcase events in baseball hotbeds like Texas and North Carolina and tried out for a 15U national select team, sticking on the roster at the New England level. He watched his TCB team play in tournaments this summer but discovered that being a spectator doesn’t suit him at all.
“Seeing kids my age out on the baseball field makes me want to go out and be on the baseball field. It was tough,” he said.
He said Bryant’s reaction to him having an elbow injury was surprising.
“As crazy as it sounds, they felt for me, but they were excited they were going to get a healthy kid who never was going to have another arm surgery,” Pascarelli said. “They were honestly excited, and that was not the reaction I was expecting.”
What helped him through the ordeal was a support system that, in addition to his family, Cifarelli and Basil, included former Coginchaug teammate Luke Garofalo.
Garofalo, a right-hander who threw in the low 90s during his senior season at Coginchaug in 2018, received a scholarship from, you guessed it, Bryant University. In late fall of his freshman season, Garofalo had, yep, Tommy John surgery.
Brothers in arms? More like brothers in surgically repaired arms.
“We have been keeping each other company this summer,” Pascarelli said. “We’ve pushed each other. He’s been pretty good emotional support for me. I sit there when he throws as part of his rehab. He tells me what to be looking forward to in college, what to expect, how to get through certain things. He’s been a good mentor.”
Cifarelli said he is looking forward to the day when Pascarelli can throw his first post-Tommy John pitch. “Come hell or high water, I will be there to see it,” he said.
Basil is pulling for his player to get back to being physically whole so he can pick up where he left off last April, before everything changed.
“Being a young kid with this type of injury, I think it affected Kolby in a number of ways,” Basil said. “To me he was one of the top three middle-of-the-order hitters in our league. When the injury happened, it affected his approach at the plate as well. That’s a difficult thing for a kid to cope with. He’s a big part of our program and I hope he will be back on track next season.”
In the meantime, Pascarelli has spent July and August in physical therapy, hanging out with Garofalo, watching the Red Sox and counting the days he can put a ball in his left hand and actually throw it.
“I remember the day I found out about the injury. Luke was at Bryant and I called him, and he said it was a good thing I was getting the surgery,” Pascarelli said. “I didn’t believe him at first, but now I do. I feel like I have a whole new elbow.”