It’s safe to say that three months ago, Duke pitcher Michael Matuella was looking forward to the major league baseball draft much differently than he is now.
Back in early spring, the 6-foot-6 right-hander, his health issues apparently behind him, was in the discussion as a possible No. 1 overall pick and a virtual lock for a top-10 spot.
But baseball is a funny game. Or not, depending upon your dugout view. After dealing with back issues during the offseason, Matuella pitched only 25 innings in another injury-shortened campaign for Duke, going 1-1 with a 1.08 ERA and 24 strikeouts. He was shut down for the season April 1 and had Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow April 14, leaving him awaiting Monday’s start of the annual draft with a mix of frustration and uncertainty.
“The draft is something you can’t really control,” Matuella said Friday in a conference call with baseball writers from his home in Great Falls, Va. “It’s frustrating having the injury and not being able to prove to everyone what I can do.”
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He added optimistically, “I know when it’s all said and done I’ll come back as a better pitcher. I’m just looking forward to that stage of my life.”
This was the second straight season that Matuella has had to deal with injury. Back problems cost him four weeks of his sophomore season a year ago. In his three years at Duke he has pitched 141 innings, less than some weekend college starters will log in one season with a good postseason run. But a fastball that has topped out at 98 mph and registered 121 strikeouts will keep Matuella high on the draft boards.
Where is anybody’s guess.
“I really don’t pay too much attention to that stuff,” Matuella said. “I know what kind of pitcher I’m capable of being.”
Matuella said he doesn’t even rule out returning to Duke for his senior season should the draft not pan out the way he wants.
“That’s definitely an option I’m evaluating,” he said. “I’m hoping a good opportunity presents itself. I really haven’t come up with a certain (draft-round) cutoff. I’ll evaluate it case by case and see if there’s a good opportunity for me.”
Since his surgery Matuella has embarked on another round of rehab work.
“Rehab is the total focus for me right now,” he said. “I was doing rehab the day after surgery, mostly stretches, isometrics, squeezes, stuff like that. I’m adding in new stuff each week, about an hour and a half each day. Then my actual workouts focusing on legs and core take about an hour.”
He won’t throw for at least two months, however.
“Four months out of surgery is the earliest I can throw, middle-of-August range,” Matuella said. “When I’m back in the game will be about a year. I’m not going to rush back. I’m not going to push the envelope and risk retearing it. … I do anticipate it being (next) spring.”
Matuella said he has been talking with two of his Duke teammates, pitchers James Marvel and Trent Swart, who had Tommy John surgery last year and sat out the 2015 season.
“I’ve been kind of picking their brains, seeing what was normal for them,” Matuella said. “I bounce things off them and have them give me advice.”
He also has drawn some consolation in knowing that other pitchers have traveled the same route. He cited former East Carolina pitcher Jeff Hoffman as an example.
Hoffman, then a junior, had his 2014 season cut short by surgery but was still drafted ninth in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays that summer. He debuted three weeks ago for Class A-Advanced Dunedin of the Florida State League and is 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA in four starts.
“Seeing how he’s bounced back, he’s been up to 99 (mph), which is pretty impressive,” Matuella said. “It’s promising to see guys with injuries coming back so well.”