07/11/06 — Lewis' long road back

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Lewis' long road back

By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on July 11, 2006 2:16 PM

KINSTON -- Scott Lewis remembers the day his baseball career flashed before his eyes.

It was the fourth inning on May 16, 2003, and the Ohio State sophomore was pitching against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The regular season was winding down, and the star southpaw was ready to lead the Buckeyes into the Big Ten tournament and beyond. The 6-foot-0, 185-pound Lewis was already projected as a first-round draft pick, and a great finish to the season might send his stock soaring even higher.

He wound up to deliver a fastball, and...

"I felt (my elbow) pop when I let it go," Lewis recalled. "It didn't really hurt that bad when I did it, but then I tried to throw another pitch and it really hurt then. The pain in my elbow was incredible.

"That's when I thought, that's it. It's all over."

The next day, the doctors told him what he already knew. The 2003 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and 2002 Big Ten Freshman of the Year had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

He needed Tommy John surgery.

"As a pitcher, you hear about that pop, you hear about Tommy John surgery, you hear about the long recovery," the 22-year-old said. "You hope it never happens to you. But it did, and it was tough. When it first happened, I kept thinking, everything's gone. My baseball career is over, and if it's not over, I'll be rehabbing forever."

Just more than three years later, Lewis is still recovering.

After just 10 appearances over two years with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the New York-Penn League after being drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the third round of the 2004 draft, Lewis isn't on the fast track to the majors.

He's on the easy-does-it track -- measured 70 pitches at a time.

But that doesn't mean he won't be a big leaguer in the next couple of years.

After a promotion to Single-A Kinston this season, Lewis is feeling closer to 100 percent -- and it shows.

Lewis took a 1-1 record and a league-leading 1.22 ERA into his latest start against Winston-Salem on Sunday. He was the Carolina League Pitcher of the Week for the week ending May 27, and was named to the 2006 Carolina League All-Star team. In 17 appearances this season, Lewis has pitched 702/3 innings (he pitched just 21 innings the previous two years combined) and has struck out 79 hitters, walked just 14 and has allowed 53 hits and 12 earned runs. His ERA is now at 1.53, still tops in the league.

"Scott's done a great job for us," said K-Tribe manager Mike Sarbaugh, whose team has the best record in the Carolina League this season at 47-24. "He's got great command of his pitches. He's got a good fastball, curve and change-up, and he locates his pitches well on both sides of the plate. He mixes it up so well and does a great job of changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance and uncomfortable at the plate.

"He's been one of the best in our league all year long, and with his stuff, if he keeps progressing and stays healthy, I think he could definitely pitch in the big leagues."

On a strict 70 pitch count -- which he'll be on all season -- Lewis tossed three scoreless innings on Sunday before giving up a three-run homer in the fourth.

It was the first longball he had given up all season.

Like most of the season, Lewis received another no-decision as Kinston lost to the Warthogs 6-5. When you get just 70 pitches a start, getting a lot of wins isn't easy. His longest outing this season has been just 52/3 innings, which came on June 17 against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. In fact, Lewis has gone five innings or more just three times this season.

The lefty isn't complaining.

"As long as I'm healthy, that's all that counts," Lewis said. "My main goal this year was to stay healthy -- the success I've had is just a bonus."

As long as his elbow keeps feeling good and the biceps tightness that plagued him last year doesn't come back, Lewis expects to see the 70 pitch count go away next season.

"I think I'm really close to 100 percent," Lewis said. "My velocity is still a little down (his fastball ranges from 88-89 mph. It ranged from 88-91 mph before his injury), and it will be interesting to see how it goes when I start throwing seven, eight nine innings.

"That'll be the true test."