Spencer boxing with shadows

Katie Brickman
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Express pitcher back on mound after surgery

Every time Tanner Spencer takes the mound, he battles with himself.

The Craik native is just 20 years old, but has already undergone a major surgery.

In 2012, Spencer had Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow.

“I essentially blew my elbow out,” said Spencer. “They told me that it looked like it had been partially torn. So the summer that I played here, I pitched with a partially torn UCL. I blew it out when I got to school.”

Spencer was just 18 years old when he went under the knife on Nov. 5, 2012.

“The actual procedure took about five-and-a-half hours,” said Spencer. “I think it usually takes about three (hours), but I did a pretty good number on mine.”

The Moose Jaw Miller Express pitcher had a nerve taken out of his right wrist and the doctors drilled four holes into his right elbow. From there, they weaved the ligament into the elbow in the form of a figure eight.

“When it fully tore, I definitely felt the pop,” he said. “Before that, the best way to describe it would be, there was a knife in my elbow every time I bent it.”

Spencer is in his sophomore year on the field and junior year in the classroom at Colby College in Kansas. He is studying exercise physiology, which would be equivalent to kinesiology. He wants to try to get into physiotherapy.

Last summer, Spencer was only a cheerleader in the dugout for the Express because he couldn’t throw.

“I am the type of guy that likes to compete a lot. It is a let down when you can’t compete up to your full ability,” he said. “It is what you live for as a baseball player and as a pitcher — you want to be on the mound. I was just itching to get out there and still am.”

It usually takes about a year for pitchers to fully recover. Players typically start throwing about 16 weeks after the surgery, but not a full strength.

This season has been a struggle for the right-hander.

In his three starts, he has never gone deeper than the sixth inning and has an ERA of 7.71 in 11 2/3 innings.

In his most recent start against Saskatoon on June 19, Spencer stumbled.

“It wasn’t great. Right from the get-go, I was throwing that thing and I knew it was going to be a tough day,” he said. “I weaseled through a couple innings, but in the back of my mind, I just knew that my stuff wasn’t there and I didn’t have any trust out there.”

Trust is a major obstacle for Spencer since coming back from the surgery. The mental battle he continually has on the mound is one he must overcome if he wants to be successful.

“My arm action seems to change every once in awhile. I can’t seem to find a release point because I have these phantom pains, which is what they call it,” Spencer explained. “When I get to the back, it feels like it is going to hurt when I throw.”

Spencer stated that those pains come and go. He will be solid for two innings and then “all of the sudden, I will lose the strike zone because I get those phantom pains.”

He pitched some quality games for Colby this season, but is fighting with consistency. In order to get that dependability back in his game, he has to figure out a way to get over his issue.

“It is quite the mental test, but you just have to keep doing it,” Spencer said. “I think I just have to let the ball go. I get into stages where I am throwing darts.”

Getting the surgery has been a difference maker for Spencer. His elbow feels totally different than it did a year ago and it is starting to feel normal as he gains strength and trust in it.

“Before, I guess, you hurt your elbow and there goes your baseball career,” he said. “Now, there is something to solve it.”

Many players in amateur and professional baseball have gotten Tommy John surgery, including R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchinson of the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Hutchinson will lose a strike zone in one inning and walk five guys,” said Spencer. “So, that is comforting to see, in a way.”

Spencer also personally knows some players that have gone through it and have helped him get through the mental challenges.

“I think every pitcher from Saskatchewan that plays pro ball has gotten Tommy John,” he said. “James (Avery) had it and I talked to him quite a bit in the off-season because he was home. I spoke with Dustin Molleken quite a bit too.”

The biggest goal Spencer wants to achieve this summer is getting back to normal on the mound.

“I want to get to a point where I can compete for my school and help my team win,” he said.

Follow Katie on Twitter @katiebrickman.

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