The long road back

Los Angeles Dodgers Minor League Head Shots Saturday, March 14, at Camelback Ranch-Glendale in Phoenix, Arizona.

Caleb Ferguson’s first appearance with the Arizona League Dodgers lasted less than an inning. The left-handed pitcher had a strikeout but gave up two runs on two hits and committed an error as the Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate defeated the White Sox 9-6 in Rookie League action on June 20.

But that was all right with the 2014 West Jefferson High School graduate.

“It felt great, but my results weren’t where I wanted them to be,” said Ferguson, who was seeing his first action since he had season-ending Tommy John surgery in May 2014. “I had a 20-pitch limit and obviously they weren’t going to leave me in past that. I have to keep working on it and getting my mechanics back where they were.”

Ferguson was selected by the Dodgers in the 38th round of the 2014 MLB First Year Player Draft. He was the 1,149th overall pick meaning that only 66 players were selected after him in the 40-round draft.

When he was in middle school, Ferguson never pictured himself picking up a baseball beyond high school. In seventh grade, he found a comfortable position on the bench and stayed there the entire season. The next year, things improved slightly. He played in about half of the games and pitched for the Roughriders’ B team.

However, T.J. Hill, a pitching coach, saw something in Ferguson no one else did. After one workout, Hill told the benchwarmer if he really worked at his game, he was going to get drafted to play professional baseball.

“I looked at him and told him ‘You’re crazy. There’s no possible way,’” Ferguson said, laughing.

However, Ferguson committed himself to baseball and returned to the diamond as a freshman as a completely new players. By his senior year, he was on several colleges’ radar, including West Virginia University. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior had signed with the Mountaineers.

Ferguson had a promising start to his senior season, striking out 37 batters and giving up only nine hits and 11 walks in the first four games. He was sporting a 1.22 earned run average in 23 innings’ work.

However, three games into his season, the pitcher started to feel fatigue settling in his left forearm. He tried icing it down and stretching it but it just didn’t feel right. By the time he faced Columbus Academy in a key Mid-State League game last May, he was clearly off his game. His fastball, once clocked at 95 miles per hour, had been reduced to a more law-abiding 76 miles per hour.

“Everyone could see something was wrong,” he said. “I couldn’t really hide it. The doctors couldn’t find anything though so I rested for two or three weeks.

“I came back and was throwing the ball and I felt something pop. I knew right then and there what it was. I told my coach (Jason Bogenrife) ‘It was a good ride but I’m done for the year.’”

Ferguson underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2014. The surgery, named after the former Dodgers pitcher, replaces the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from somewhere else in the body. The surgery is quite common among Major League Baseball pitchers with several of them going on to have successful careers after the surgery.

However the surgery appeared to be a life-changing moment for Ferguson. After the initial diagnosis, Ferguson drove three and a half hours to Morgantown, W. Va. and told the Mountaineers staff the news.

“Their response was maybe I should try to go to a feeder school so they could give my money to someone else,” Ferguson said. “My agent told me I still had a chance of getting drafted but I figured I’m 17 and hurt. There was no chance a team would pick me up.

“I worked so hard to get (to where I was). What went through my mind was ‘What’s next?’”

Ferguson got a clear message on what his next move was in a most unlikely way … on Twitter at Huntington Park. The day of the draft he went to watch a state championship baseball game at the Clippers’ ballpark with his father Pat, his brother Kyle and his friend Kyle Rollins.

While Ferguson was focused on the game, Rollins was following the draft on Twitter. In the middle of the game, Rollins handed Ferguson his cell phone.

“He tapped me on my knee and said ‘Hey look at this: The Los Angeles Dodgers selected Caleb Ferguson of West Jefferson,’” Ferguson said. “I was just shocked. Everything took off after that. I started getting texts and phone calls.”

Ferguson officially signed with the Dodgers on July 3, a day after his 18th birthday, and reported to the AZL Dodgers facility in Glendale, Ariz. on July 6.

Going through the rehabilitation process in Arizona has been a mental process as well as a physical one, Ferguson said. Rifling a 94 mile per hour fastball in his first game with the club was a big step.

“The rehab guys down here tell that once you touch 90 you’re going to keep going up from there,” he said. “You usually gain two to three miles on your fastball after Tommy John surgery so I’m hoping to get up into the high 90s sometime this year or next.

“(Most of the recovery is) just mental. You always have in the back of your head: ‘If my elbow pops here, I have to go through another 15 months of rehab.’ It tests how much you really love the game. I have to keep on doing what they tell me to do. They’re just trying to keep me in the game.”