HOUSTON Chase McDowell was hasty with his contemplation. He had consulted with two of the best physicians in their field, Dr. David Lintner and Dr. J.P. Bramhall, and didn't hesitate on a course of action.
McDowell had options. The discomfort that caused him to abort the final start of his sophomore season was diagnosed as ulnar collateral ligament damage. Like fellow Rice right-hander Mike Ojala two years earlier, McDowell could have pitched through the pain and the completion of 2011 season, and then undergone reconstructive surgery.
Instead, McDowell opted to have Bramhall perform the procedure six days after McDowell strolled off the Reckling Park mound against Louisiana Tech. On Tuesday night at Reckling Park, two days beyond the 11-month anniversary of his previous outing, the decision McDowell reached last March was validated as absolutely, unequivocally correct.
"I've known Bramhall pretty much my whole life so he knew, this (being) my junior year (relative to the first-year player draft) now, he kind of knew what I wanted," said McDowell, a College Station native. "From the start that was kind of the whole plan, to be on pace to being back in the game by nine months, 10 months (or) as early as possible."
It is conceivable that McDowell could make four additional starts before the one-year anniversary of his March 25 surgery rolls around. Against New Mexico State on Tuesday he pitched into the second inning, allowing two runs on four hits while throwing 28 pitches in the Owls' 7-5 win. Rice coach Wayne Graham, in coordination with Bramhall, had set a strict pitch count of 40 for McDowell in advance of the outing. By every account, McDowell took a significant step forward Tuesday night.
To fully grasp where McDowell is, one must review where he was last March. Six days before his start against the Bulldogs, McDowell produced a blinding flash of potential at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
In a dominating performance against UC-Santa Barbara, McDowell allowed one run on four hits and one walk over nine innings. He struck out four batters and brazenly maximized that enviable smooth delivery. His fastball had crept to the mid-90s, and his curveball-change-up combination was stellar. McDowell had made only four appearances as a freshman, but last March 13 he solidified a slot in the weekend rotation.
Six days later McDowell carried a perfect game into the fifth inning before everything came crashing down. He had experienced some discomfort in California and, after his elbow injury was deemed severe, acknowledged that wear and tear dating back to his prep days at A&M Consolidated High School contributed to his unexpected breakdown.
McDowell was undaunted by what he faced. Bramhall, the team physician for Texas A&M, completed the same Tommy John procedure on Ojala, who returned to the mound nine months and one day after going under the knife. McDowell remained in constant contact with Ojala through every step of the rehabilitation process, and given the success rate Bramhall had enjoyed with his aggressive rehabilitation approach, McDowell was confident in his ability to return quickly.
"He seems to have his head totally on straight," Graham said of McDowell. "You don't anticipate something hurting or it will hurt, and he's not anticipating it hurting. He's come along (exceptionally).
"He's gotten bigger and the mechanics are good. I suspect that if nothing goes wrong he'll be up to 94 (miles per hour with his fastball) by the end of the year with a good curveball. With that kid of delivery it'll keep coming, His stride length is good, his hip rotation is good everything. Good front shoulder closed; I didn't expect him to hit 91 (on the gun)."
It didn't take McDowell long to reclaim most of his velocity. He was touching 88-90 with his fastball throughout preseason intrasquads, and while his curveball isn't fully back, it's only a couple miles per hour from regaining full bite. McDowell had progressed rapidly by fall intrasquads last October but regressed when Bramhall, per his recommendation, shut him down for a customary three weeks during the semester break.
Everything was where it needed to be against the Aggies. McDowell surrendered a solo home run to New Mexico State shortstop Zach Voight on an inside fastball that Voight cheated to reach. Owls pitching coach Mike Taylor had no qualms with the quality of that pitch or any McDowell offered. The Aggies are a disciplined hitting team, thus they provided a solid challenge for a pitcher returning from elbow surgery.
Once his curveball gains velocity and his change-up sharpens, McDowell could threaten to rejoin the Owls' weekend rotation. He had just begun to harness his arsenal before he was shelved last season. Now that he is back, and healthy, there is no reason not to expect steady improvement.
"He's always had the good stuff," said Owls senior catcher Craig Manuel, who caught McDowell on Tuesday and in his penultimate start in 2011. "A good easy and hard fastball, great breaking stuff, and he showed it. He obviously wasn't throwing as hard, but he looked really good. His mechanics were solid and he looked just like he did in California last year."
That start in San Francisco resonates for McDowell. It was the high-water mark of his brief career and served to motivate him throughout the rehabilitation process. Now that he is back, with step one of his resumed career complete, McDowell can look forward with confidence.
He could get the start in the opener of the Silver Glove Series against the Houston Cougars on Feb. 28. If he does, his pitch count will be expanded to 50. If all continues to go well, Graham and Taylor expect McDowell to be at full strength by mid-April. If the Owls work deep into the NCAA Tournament and McDowell is a contributor to their success, perhaps the first-year player draft will come into the picture. McDowell is eligible, and a dream previously deferred isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"When I get there it will fall into place however it works out," McDowell said. "Not too much thought just yet. But it's there."
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