- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2015

Frustrated. Annoyed. Disappointed.

Michael Matuella used all of these adjectives to describe his emotions over the past few months, as his junior season at Duke was cut short by Tommy John surgery. The right-handed pitcher was a candidate to be selected first overall in this week’s draft, which begins Monday. But since undergoing surgery, his stock has slowly declined. Now, the Great Falls, Virginia, native is concentrating only on his recovery.

“Rehab is the total focus for me,” Matuella said. “It’s been pretty basic stuff — stretches and isometrics. A lot has been legs and core, and I feel really good right now. It’s frustrating, with the injury, to not be able to prove to everyone what I can do.”

Elbow ligament replacement surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John, is slowly becoming more and more prevalent in pitchers. According to a survey conducted by MLB.com, 25 percent of active big-league pitchers and 15 percent of minor league arms have undergone the procedure at some point in their careers. Matuella is on track to join those ranks.

As the procedure has become more popular, major league teams have become more accustomed to these situations. Writing off Matuella as a first-round pick would be haphazard, as many teams have looked past certain injuries and selected injured pitchers early in the draft.

The Washington Nationals, for example, have not shied away from prospects who have had Tommy John surgery. They drafted Lucas Giolito with the 16th overall pick in 2012, even though he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow months beforehand. They also picked Erick Fedde, who had a torn UCL entering last year’s draft, with the 18th overall selection.

SEE ALSO: Nationals’ draft focus won’t sway, despite no 1st-round pick

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said injuries often cause players like Giolito and Fedde to drop in the draft when they otherwise would not.

“Every Tommy John case is different,” Rizzo said. “It’s not a philosophy to draft a guy with an injury. That’s not what we’re looking to do. But when talents like Giolito and Fedde and those guys fall to you because of injuries, and the injuries are palatable for us, those are, we feel, opportunities to jump on guys that we would have no chance of getting without the injury.”

The team that drafts Matuella will feel that same way about him. At Georgetown Preparatory School, he excelled on and off the field. He was a 2012 Perfect Game Atlantic Region honorable mention selection and served as a team captain his senior year. He was a four-year Dean’s List honoree and AP National Scholar.

“He’s a tremendously gifted person from a standpoint of work ethic,” Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard said. “He’s a very bright person. He’s one of the best students on our team.”

Matuella’s report card isn’t all he has to offer. As a sophomore at Duke, he reached 98 mph on his fastball with exceptional command. He finished his sophomore season ranked 18th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in ERA (2.78), second in batting average against (. 190), 17th in strikeouts (69) and third in strikeouts per game (10.65).

Given Matuella’s work ethic, Pollard said his statistics are not coincidental. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder has grown considerably since leaving high school, both in skill and size.

“His physical maturation is unprecedented,” Pollard said. “He went from a guy throwing 87-88 in high school to throwing 97-98 by the spring of his sophomore year. It’s unlike any physical maturation that I’ve ever witnessed.”

A torn ligament wasn’t Matuella’s first problem on the field, as he felt discomfort in his back throughout the previous fall. The back problems are a things of past, according to Pollard.

“He identified the problem this summer and entered into a very grueling training regiment to address the issue,” Pollard said. “If I were a scouting director, it wouldn’t cause me to have second thoughts.”

The Tommy John surgery, however, still sits on Matuella’s resume in bold lettering. One of the largest questions regarding Matuella is his return. Typically, the surgery requires a prolonged rehabilitation process.

“It’s going to be about a year before I’m actually back in the game,” Matuella said. “Obviously, I’m going to get back as soon as I can, but I’m not going to push the envelope and risk retearing it. I do anticipate my arm being OK by next spring.”

There’s no doubting that Matuella’s draft stock has decreased the past few months, but it isn’t as much of a draft deterrent as it once was. Matuella’s profile seems to be similar to that of Fedde and Giolito: A highly-touted prospect blemished by injuries. His talent and work ethic can’t be ignored.

“Anyone that has ever seen Michael pitch over the past year and a half would tell you he’s not only a first-rounder, but he’s a high first-rounder,” Pollard said. “His ability to throw his fastball with exceptional velocity, but also to sink and command it, is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen at the college level.”

With all the adversity Matuella has encountered this past season, his frustration is rational. Hopefully, his frustration converts into excitement. Hearing his name announced at the podium Monday night should suffice.

• Andrew Walsh can be reached at awalsh@washingtontimes.com.

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