Vitiellis Battling Back
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Baseball coach Bob Morgan had planned for Nick Vitelliss to be his No. 1 starter coming into last season in 2003. After all, the 6-5, 195-pound righthander was coming off a banner junior season in 2001. An 8-1 record overall and school record-tying five wins in Big Ten play. A 3.58 ERA. Second-team All-Big Ten recognition.
Vitielliss, who came to IU from Waldorf, Md. (Thomas Stone HS), had found his stride in his third season as a Hoosier, and the possibility of what he could accomplish as a senior was exciting. He seemed poised to anchor the Hoosier pitching staff in 2003.
"I do think that was the year that I came into my own. I put everything together that I had to learn during my freshman and sophomore years. I had had opportunities to pitch, but I needed to go out and prove to the coaches that I could be a starter. They gave me the opportunity and I capitalized on it. I think it had a lot to do with maturing, having the confidence to go out and throw in my pitches for strikes."
But barely a week before the official beginning of the 2003 season, the bad news came. Vitielliss, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles coming out of high school, had been experiencing some pain in his right throwing elbow. After seeing a doctor, he learned that this pain was not going to go away. Not without surgery. He would have to undergo surgery on the elbow, what is widely known in the baseball world as "Tommy John," termed for the first pitcher to have the surgery nearly 30 years ago. Doctors call it ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.
"I had mixed emotions from all over the place," Vitielliss said. "I had felt the pain a little earlier but didn't pinpoint it until later. To find out that I would have to sit out a year, it was a very disappointing feeling. I was looking forward to coming back and having a strong year. I wanted to help the team as much as possible."
The result of the surgery meant that Vitielliss would be shut down for a full year. No competition at all, a tough pill for the Hoosier pitcher to swallow. It would be a long year for Vitielliss.
"When they first told me (I would miss a year), I was so frustrated. I thought, `Should I give it up and just concentrate on graduating?' Aftert talking with coaches, trainers, family and teammates, I realized I'd worked too hard my entire life to just throw it away. It would be something I would regret."
Vitielliss made up his mind to work his way back. He has worked hard in the training room and tried to do everything as close to the book as he can.
"I've listened to what the doctor says, and if I do that, everybody says it will be okay," Vitielliss said. "It's a slow, grueling process. Sometimes, it bears down on you. The support I've had from my family, the coaches, and especially my teammates, it makes you work even harder. It gives you a sense of confidence, it gives you something to really strive for, even when you feel down. I missed it more than anything. It was so hard to go to the games and watch our team play."
Nearly nine months later, Vitielliss is still itching to play baseball.
During Indiana's fall workouts, he was at practice everyday, even though he was unable to participate.
"I tried to help the younger players get adapted to the IU program and what it's all about."
The veteran was impressed with what he saw from his teammates, and like Coach Morgan, sees the Hoosiers as a strong offensive and defensive team this spring with the potential to be highly successful. He knows the pitching staff will be the final link to IU's success, and he's eager to be a part of it.
Vitielliss has been throwing on flatground for a month or so, and says his arm feels better than it has in a long time.
"It's been awhile, but I want to say it feels better than it did my junior year. I have no pain. It's a great feeling and a huge relief that I can go out there and throw without any pain. It's very exciting."
Coming into the 2004 season, Vitielliss' main goal is to get healthy. He wants to prove to the coaches that he can be a Big Ten starter on the mound again.
"I think they know as well as I do that I can go out there and pitch and start in the Big Ten, I just have to show them that I can do it again. I did sit out a year, and a year is a long time to sit out and not pitch competitively. I want to give it one more try. You don't realize what you had until it's gone," he said.
Vitielliss is hungry for that adrenaline rush he gets when he steps on the mound, and the Hoosiers are glad to welcome him back in 2004.
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