By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — As far as Woodland baseball coach Steve Bainer can see, the game situation just doesn’t matter to senior pitcher Cam Heeman.
“To him, it doesn’t matter if there’s anybody on base,” Bainer said of Heeman, who’s closed several games this year for the Hawks. “He has that mentality of, ‘Give me the ball, let’s go. Fastball’s coming, guys. Come hit my best.’ You want that out of a guy.”
That attitude is one reason why Woodland started this campaign 10-0, but until a month ago, the Hawks weren’t sure if Heeman would see the mound until the end of the season.
That’s because on May 7, 2020, he experienced the three words that pitchers have dreaded for decades — Tommy John surgery, the procedure necessary to repair damage to the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament.
Heeman’s right elbow troubles started in August 2019, when he stopped pitching after being diagnosed with a sprained elbow. After resting for a few months and rehabbing, he returned to pitching in showcases over the winter entering 2020.
“I got my velocity up, pitched in a showcase, and it went way back down,” Heeman recalled. “I got an MRI through another doctor, and I was diagnosed with a fully torn UCL.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced Heeman to delay surgery about a month and a half. He had no concerns about last season — Heeman and his teammates had already assumed the 2020 season would be cancelled, as it eventually was — but the surgery delay meant that his senior year could also be in jeopardy.
“My immediate reaction was heartbreaking,” Heeman said. “It’s the game I’ve played since I was a little kid. But once it was torn, it was torn — there was no reason to look back. I just had to keep going.”
Heeman’s rehab program included three days a week with a physical therapist and home workouts every other day.
“I didn’t have any pain, thankfully, but it was exhausting,” Heeman said. “There were a few points when I was really getting down, but my physical therapist, trainer and doctor told me to stick with it.”
Unable to play during the summer or fall last year, the Beacon Falls native spent his time coaching 12-year-olds — and redeveloping his hunger for getting back onto the mound as quickly as possible.
Recovery from Tommy John surgery can last between one and two years, though, and Heeman’s trainer wasn’t ready to give him the OK to pitch in games until sometime in May. Even as the Hawks’ first-year coach, Bainer knew Heeman would be as patient as a famished dog next to a T-bone steak.
“At the beginning of the year, I told my [assistant] coaches, ‘No matter what happens, the day we play the first game, Cam’s going to try to be ready, and we have to reel him in. We have to get him to see the big picture,’” Bainer recalled.
Sure enough, on the eve of Woodland’s April 13 opener against Wolcott, Heeman approached his new coach.
“The day before the Wolcott game on opening day, I went up to him and said, ‘This isn’t working for me. I’m ready to go,’” Heeman said.
The right-hander brokered a deal with his trainer to convert his bullpen sessions, which were regularly scheduled as part of his rehab process, into game availability. He wasn’t allowed to throw curveballs at first, and his first few appearances came with a hard cap of 45 pitches. He later maxed out at 65 pitches in his first start, a 4-1 win over Watertown on May 3 when he struck out nine over 4 1/3 innings.
“I just wanted to be out there,” Heeman said.
Through the first half of the season, Heeman has racked up a 1-0 record with two saves. He earned the save in Woodland’s 4-2 win over Holy Cross on May 6, recording a strikeout with the tying run on first to seal Michael Belcher’s victory.
Luckily for the Hawks, their starting rotation has been the Naugatuck Valley League’s best, even without Heeman. Being limited mostly to a relief role has been an adjustment for the senior.
“I’m not used to working on a dented mound,” Heeman said. “I’m used to working in clean innings, but at the end of the day, I need to get the job done. I love the pressure. I love being in an energetic spot of the game. I want to be in control, get the job done and help my team.”
Bainer has only been able to use Heeman in doses — a few innings against Watertown, a few innings to close out wins here and there, all with the checks and balances of Woodland trainer Ryan Kirby — but he’s already looking forward to the chains coming off.
“When we get a green light, that’s a great feeling to have,” Bainer said. “A healthy Cam Heeman is arguably the best pitcher in the league, so him getting back to being healthy makes us that much stronger.”