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Torn UCL’s Bring Two Chinook Pitchers Together

 

By: Nathan DeSutter

Sitting on a hospital bed with a dull pain in his once powerful right arm, Josh Serio knew his diagnosis was inevitable. But, when he heard—through his ringing ears, and racing thoughts—the muffled voice of his doctor say those two words, “Tommy John,” he couldn't hold back the tears.

“I cried, Serio said. “I knew that some of the times people usually don't come back from Tommy John, they don't get the velocity back.”

The initial injury happened on July 1st, 2015. On the mound for the Kenosha Kingfish and in the midst of a dominant year, the Greenfield, Wisconsin native had a 0.89 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 40.1 IP, he felt something he thought was tendinitis, though further research revealed a partial UCL tear.

His summer was over, but he didn't opt for major surgery right away. Instead, doctor’s gave him a platelet rich plasma (PRP) injection, where platelet rich blood is re-injected into a patient’s body to promote the healing of injured tendons, to cement his UCL.

Similar to Wisconsin roadways, the cement didn't hold up. After just 34 innings during his junior year at UW-Parkside, and on a day he’ll never forget—April 4th, 2016—he knew he needed the major reconstructive surgery.

With that news, he decided a change of scenery was also in order. After three years of DII dominance, the strong, stout righty who could top out at 96 and collected 166 strikeouts in 170 innings with the Rangers, chose to transfer to the DI UW-Milwaukee Panthers.

“Parkside isn't a very well known school where people get drafted and anything like that, Serio said. “UWM has better resources for me to come back to where I was. The coaching staff was better capable of handling my injury, taking care of the players more.”

Luckily, the social aspect of the transfer wasn't difficult for Serio, Milwaukee consistently brings in Junior College talent, so there’s plenty of players in a position similar to his. Plus, he already knew a few players on the team.

However, his injury situation complicated things a bit. He was forced to miss practices twice, sometimes three times a week for rehab, and had plenty of rough days where he struggled to find the motivation to keep going.

“First semester, with school, rehab, and knowing I wasn't going to be able to travel or play, I knew it was gonna be hard to get the mentality right to give 110 percent every day,” Serio said.

It might've been impossible, if not for one of his new UWM teammates, Alex McIntosh.

The first time Serio heard the name Alex McIntosh, it was followed by a single description —oddball.

A lefty pitcher in his sophomore year at UWM, McIntosh likes his humor a little on the vulgar side, consistently sports star-spangled socks to display his love for America, and has an unhealthy obsession with Packers kicker, Mason Crosby.

None of that bothered Serio, in fact, he was happy to hear there was a fellow misfit among his new Panther teammates.

“I’m kind of an oddball guy too,” Serio said. “The way I talk, I know a lot of movies, and I say those quotes, and sometimes people look at me and say, ‘What are you saying?’ Only a few people would ever get that.”

Besides movies and South Park, they had one more thing in common—it was the main reason their friendship formed— Tommy John.

Serio first met McIntosh right after his introductory team meeting. Most guys broke off in different directions, but the two wounded hurlers found each other slowly lumbering towards the training room

McIntosh turned to Serio and asked, “So, you had Tommy John?” Serio affirmed, and McIntosh commiserated, “Yeah, me too.”

Day by day, the two became closer; bonding over the simple fact that they were the two guys on the baseball team that were not allowed to play the sport they love.

“I was at the tail end of my rehab when he was just starting it up,” McIntosh said. We both hung out in the training room together, have a similar sense of humor and interests, and we’re both criminal justice majors, so we take a lot of classes together.”

More than sharing a few laughs and late-night study sessions, McIntosh was able to pass on some injury wisdom to Serio.

“Whenever I had a problem with my arm, I went to him and said, ‘Hey, did you have this issue,’” Serio said. “He said, ‘Yeah, it happens to everybody.’ So, he really helped me with that part of it.

It was the fall of 2015 when McIntosh first heard a loud pop erupt from his arm in the last pitch of a scrimmage. Nothing hurt, but everything went numb.

I knew something funky happened, but I didn't know what,” McIntosh said. “I shut myself down for two weeks Then I tried to throw with a trainer, and it hurt pretty bad, so after a month or so of calling around and trying to get an MRI, [doctor’s] said, ‘Yeah, you need Tommy John.’”

Emotions didn't overcome McIntosh; he just sat in the cold, dreary office with a look of acceptance. He knew he had a long road ahead of him—starting with surgery in December—but what he didn't know is just how long and arduous his path back to a mound would be.

One year later, he was back to throwing again. His fastball returned to the high 80’s, even hitting low 90’s, and everything felt right, but that’s when he got some news he didn't expect—he was ineligible.

“[At UWM] there’s a 20-40-60 percentage rule,” Mcintosh said. “This was my junior year, and I had to be 40 percent done, and I was something like 25 percent.”

It was a mistake in communication. He took 12 credits worth of incorrect classes and dropped a summer class he didn’t know he had to take. Now, one year without baseball turned into two, and even worse, more arm pain meant another shutdown and more rehab. It was the worst possible news.

“A lot of my life revolves around baseball,” McIntosh said.”I’d been playing since I don't even know since I could walk. My first word was "ball." That's just what I do, that’s how I spend all my free time.”

Once the collegiate season ended, McIntosh finally got some good news. He would be playing summer baseball with the Lakeshore Chinooks.

The caveat, he found out two days before the season started, and it came coupled with news of a back injury from his UWM teammate, Brandon Parr. Nonetheless, McIntosh was ecstatic to get back to throwing in live games.

His Lakeshore debut came on June 3rd, 2017, 665 days after his last appearance in the fall of 2017. It was nerve-wracking, exhilarating, and relieving all at the same time, but most of all, he was just happy.

“I wanted to go out there and just compete,” he said. “I love baseball, I love my teammates, and I love coming to the field. It was just good to break the seal and get my feet back under me.”

As the summer wore on, McIntosh continued to improve. He threw four scoreless innings against the Madison Mallards and had a stretch of three scoreless outings between July 7th and 11th.

There have been some rough days too. In his first and only start of the summer, he gave up seven runs in 2.2 innings, and most recently, gave up three runs in 2.1 innings against Rockford, but it’s all just a part of the process.

“It’s been up and down,” he said. “Some days I feel pretty good, some days I don't feel too good. I can tell I’m 100 percent healthy, but I don't think I’m necessarily fully back to what I was. I think just throwing more and going out and throwing helped me kind of get back into the flow.”

However, probably the best news of the summer came on July 12th, that’s when the Chinooks officially announced the addition of Serio to the active roster.

He made his first appearance on July 14, 2017, 466 days after the cement broke last April.

“To have one of your better friends come here, it’s nice,” McIntosh said. “What’s special about it is this is his first appearance since blowing out, and it was really cool to see him get back on the mound, especially to see him do it in the same jersey you’re wearing.”

Serio finished the day with three hits and one run surrendered over one inning pitching, but it wasn’t about the stats, it was all about getting back on the mound.

“I was just super pumped. I didn't sleep that night. I just want to play,” Serio said.

He’s had a lot of tough times through his long journey, and his initial fear about not returning to his normal velocity has held true. Currently, his fastball sits anywhere from 89-91 miles-per hour. But, being the positive person that he is, he was able to take some positives away from the injury.

“I feel like I've become more of a complete pitcher,” he said. “I focused more on my mechanics and the way I threw. That was a big thing in the rehab process. Your form. Don't really cock your arm back too far.”

The central part of his development into a complete pitcher, a changeup. While recovering, he couldn't rely on blowing hitters away with velocity, and his curve didn't elicit the same bite, he had to focus on mixing speeds. Now, he has a deadly combination of four pitches: fastball, curve, slider, and change 

Overall, through the injury process, he’s learned a lot of valuable lessons. Including, a few tidbits he’d like to pass on to younger pitchers.

“If I could preach to kids who are going to college baseball, is that you need time off for your arm, for your body to recover fully for your next time out,” he said.

McIntosh agreed, “Kids today play a lot of travel ball. I was a never a big travel ball guy, I played High School and Legion, and that was it. I think kids play baseball year round and never give themselves a break.”

Now that they’re both healthy, the Chinooks will need to depend on them to be dominant forces out of the bullpen and meet the goal Serio has set. 

“I just want to help the team win and get a championship,” Serio said.