After delivering the pitch, he heard and felt what pitchers fear the most: a pop in his right arm. He fell off to the side of the mound gripping his arm. There was only one thought in his head, “Am I done?”
“I kind of broke down at first,” said Devin Williams, a right-handed pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system and the #54 overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.
Tragedy struck for the then 22-year-old pitcher when he tore his UCL during a Minor League Spring Training game. At that time, Williams was preparing for a big season after spending the previous four establishing himself as a promising arm within the system. In his first 287 professional innings, Williams had 288 strikeouts and a 3.79 ERA and routinely appeared on the team’s top prospect lists.
Then in a single instant, he learned his season was over before it even started. But Williams is determined and wasn’t ready to give up, no matter how significant the injury.
“Once I got over that initial reaction, I set my mind on putting everything into my rehab and coming back stronger than before,” Williams said.
It’s not that easy. There are mental hurdles that come with the physical challenges. While rehabbing, Williams was secluded to the Brewers’ facility in Maryvale, Arizona. Outside of holidays, he couldn’t go home for 16 months. While he worked on building his strength back up, his friends were spread throughout the various levels of the Brewers’ farm system.
“It was definitely hard watching my teammates play without me. I don’t think I watched baseball at all last season until the playoffs came around. It was just a reminder that I couldn’t be out on the field.”
Thankfully for Williams, he has a reliable support system. When he was down or needed a boost, his mom was there for him, even if they weren’t in the same city.
“She kept me going at times where I was just through with the whole process. I wouldn’t have made it through without her.”
Slowly but surely, Williams worked his way back up to being able to throw again. The ball was back in his hand and he was building strength, playing catch, moving up to long toss, then pitching on flat ground. Finally, he was able to get back on the mound, albeit for rehab outings. Even though it was just rehab games, some of Williams’ fans were excited to hear about his progress.
“My mom and my grandpa were blowing up my phone after every rehab outing.”
22 months after throwing his last regular season pitch, a new day finally arrived. Devin Williams was added to the Carolina Mudcats’ roster on June 7. He was handed the ball to start that day’s game against the Down East Wood Ducks, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers.
“I was really amped up to be facing real competition. I was really focused on slowing everything down and getting strike one. I knew I’d be good after that.”
His first inning started with a groundout. Then the second batter struck out.
“That first strikeout just confirmed that I’m back and still able to do the things I’ve done in the past, probably even a little better now.”
The outing ended after 2.1 innings and 43 pitches. Williams only gave up a run on three hits, a walk and struck out three. It felt good.
“I wanted to keep going, but I’m on a pitch count right now, and I understand that. I’m just happy to finish the outing healthy.”
Despite how good he feels, the organization is still going to make sure Williams takes things slow just like his peers Adrian Houser and Nate Kirby after their Tommy John procedures.
“I think the plan is to keep me at that 45 pitch range for now and progress to 60 later in the season.”
There’s something about the injury that’s made Williams stronger. Maybe not physically, but definitely mentally.
“I got mentally tougher over the past year. I think that’s carried onto the field because there’s no adversity I’ll face on the mound that’s tougher than what I’ve already gone through.”