Prior to pitching in Kent State University’s Blue-Gold fall baseball game, Ryan Lane had been told he was a strong candidate to be a weekend starter for league games for the Golden Flashes — the defending Mid-American Conference champions.
And as the 2017 New London graduate fell behind 2-0 in a count in the first inning on Oct. 6, he turned to his curveball for a strike.
It was time to dig deep and impress his coaches and peers even more. But there was a problem.
“It felt like ice rubbing together in my elbow,” Lane said. “I walked off the mound and told myself something didn’t feel right. It didn’t hurt, it just felt strange.”
He then threw a fastball and again felt the same feeling, with little pop to his heater. Then on his 15th pitch of the day, Lane decided he was going to dig deep and let it loose — working through what he thought was a minor hiccup in his No. 1 pitch that had reached speeds of 94 mph in 2018.
“And while the ball was still in my hand, I felt the muscle blow up and the ball went flying,” Lane said. “And in that moment, I knew. I didn’t need to wait around for the results.”
He was right.
Lane had torn the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his throwing arm. Complete reconstructive surgery — commonly known as Tommy John surgery — was needed. Gone was any hope at pitching in 2019.
As a true freshman for the MAC powerhouse in 2018, Lane burst onto the scene. His first two collegiate starts were on the road against Atlantic Coastal Conference foes at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Pittsburgh.
He allowed just one earned run with eight strikeouts and two walks in eight-plus innings while earning a win in those two starts. He closed the year with three innings of relief in an NCAA Tournament loss to powerful Louisville, allowing two earned runs.
Overall, Lane appeared in seven games (five starts) for the Golden Flashes, who finished 40-18 and won an NCAA tournament game. He finished with a 3-0 record and a 2.55 ERA.
He allowed seven earned runs on 23 hits with 19 strikeouts and nine walks in 24 2/3 innings of work. In 99 at-bats, Lane limited hitters to a .232 batting average against him.
But as the Golden Flashes move closer to the stretch run of the regular season, Lane finds himself in a difficult and strange position. He cannot even toss a baseball in the air to himself, yet alone play catch with a teammate.
“I’d say I was upset, but no so much angry about it,” Lane said. “It’s baseball and it happens — especially to a lot of the big right-handed pitchers.”
As Lane went through all the MRI images with various medical staffs, there was also another discovery made.
“They said a bone spur in my elbow is actually what caused it,” Lane said. “So I first had the bone spur removed (on Nov. 2) and then a few weeks later, they did the Tommy John procedure.”
Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the Medical Director for the Cincinnati Reds and all of its minor league affiliates, performed the surgeries.
And even then, a third discovery was made during the Nov. 20 surgery. As the surgical craft procedure, when the UCL ligament was replaced with the Palmaris Longus muscle from near Lane’s wrist, Kremchek noticed something else.
“When he opened it up, he said I had torn the UCL before, probably when I was 12 or 13,” Lane said. “It must have happened in the fall when I wasn’t throwing, and it kind of grew back together fine. I think I remember when it happened looking back. I couldn’t pick arm for couple weeks — but I just thought everyone’s arm hurt when they threw.”
Even as he began the initial post-surgery recovery process, Lane said he felt good mentally. He could easily look to a similar path by another area Firelands Conference standout who also starred at Kent State as an example.
Andrew Chafin (Western Reserve 2008), currently a reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks, went through the same surgery while at Kent State. He’s one of several, in fact.
“You walk into the clubhouse and see all the guys who went on to have success after surgery,” Lane said. “You see all those guys’ faces on the wall, including Andrew. It’s not like I’m the first time it’s happened. Honestly, I was just ready to get the surgery over with and work to start throwing again.”
The recovery process
Lane is in the fifth month of the lengthy recovery process, expected to take more than a year — assuming things are progressing well.
The freshman is majoring in Finance, but still had the ability to write.
“The most annoying part is being unable to hold any weights or do any upper body work to stay in shape,” he said. “Now I just come to the field every day and I’m on game ball and foul ball duty every game. But one of my roommates also got the surgery in January, so I’ve had someone to rehab with.”
Lane will go back to the doctor next on May 29 to try and check off his post-rehabilitation assessments. If he passes those tests, he’ll start throwing the ball from 30 feet, limited to 30 throws off the mound, every other day for about three months.
The goal is to be worked up to 100 percent by November, so Lane can be ready by the first weekend in February 2020 — some 15 months removed from throwing in an actual game.
“To go from maybe being a weekend starter (in MAC games) to blowing out my arm — I felt like it was a big opportunity lost,” Lane said. “But again, it happens. It opens a lot of doors for some younger guys to also step up. It was the same way I probably wouldn’t have thrown at all last year had I not benefitted from injuries to guys above me.”
The most telling part of the entire process for Lane was what he’s learned in his time away from the mound.
“Baseball isn’t everything,” he said. “Growing up, everything was baseball-oriented. We built our lives around my baseball schedule. Spending a whole year away from the game, I realized that I didn’t play because I was good at it — I played baseball because I love it.
“I still like showing up every day, and it gives me an entire year to get in great shape,” Lane added. “Watching from the outside, I see little things I used to do and now I recognize them. It’s taught me about perseverance. Things aren’t going my way on the field, but I still have to show up to do my class work and be a responsible student.”