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Baseball | Battered, broken, but not out

Wrist, elbow injuries haven’t slowed Matt Collins

Published: Friday, April 20, 2012

Updated: Friday, April 20, 2012 10:04

baseball

William Butt / The Tufts Daily

Despite being unable to start behind the plate this season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, senior co-captain Matt Collins has started all 23 games and is hitting .373 with 20 RBIs.

Pop!

Matt Collins heard the noise. He felt the snap. Standing out in right field during warm−ups for an Intercity League game on a blistering summer afternoon with the Watertown Reds, Collins let one fly. Not exactly the wisest decision made by the baseball team’s senior co−captain and starting catcher.

Three weeks earlier, Collins had a cast removed from his wrist, the plaster remnant of a broken bone suffered against Bowdoin on April 30, 2011. After rehabbing with trainers at Tufts, Collins was cleared to play again.

He got a little ahead of himself, a little too eager to be back on the diamond. He amped it up faster than he should have.

Pop!

The first reaction was the most drastic. Panic arrived. Between the feeling and the noise, Collins knew it wasn’t just an average tweak. He wondered if he would ever play again.

For a week after, Collins didn’t talk about the injury much, hoping that maybe it would begin to feel better on its own, that the pain would go away. He finally told his mother after she asked about her son’s summer league games. Collins explained that he hadn’t been going.

When baseball players suffer elbow injuries, the first name that surfaces is always Tommy John, the three−syllable curse for pitchers and fielders alike. Named after a former major−league pitcher, the surgery is serious but recovery rates are now close to 100 percent. Still, going under the knife means prolonged recovery periods, not exactly a bright light for Collins heading into his final season with the Jumbos.

Indeed, Collins had fully torn his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Reconstructive surgery was on the table. The decision came down to the timetable. Undergoing Tommy John gave Collins the opportunity to serve as the designated hitter and play first base for Tufts this season.

With the decision in his hands, Collins chose surgery.

“I learned that you have to make decisions based on what you think is right given the information you have at the present time,” Collins said. “When you’re making a decision at the moment, you can’t try to think of what−ifs. It’s important to use the information in your present hand.”

The surgery itself, performed by Dr. Luke Oh at Massachusetts General Hospital, lasted three to four hours. When Collins got wheeled into the surgery room, already injected with some Valium to relax, he began giving a woman a hard time. She was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers bandana. Collins, a Hopkinton, Mass., native, is a Patriots fan.

Any nerves Collins might have experienced before undergoing his first major surgery were alleviated by Oh, who specializes in Tommy John procedures. One night before the surgery, Oh spent an hour on the phone with Collins, talking about the decision he had made. Collins had been going back and forth, unable to decipher the optimal choice.

“That night, he stepped out of his doctor role and became a person who genuinely cared about me and my health,” Collins said. “That was really awesome. I knew I was in good hands.”

The rehab process included covering up the cast when he showered and making sure his arm stood straight up when he slept. Little things like that were frustrating. The bright side was that he already knew how to do things with his left hand after the broken wrist.

Between a cast and a robotic arm that limited his elbow’s range of motion, Collins spent eight weeks with his elbow immobilized. Tack that onto the eight weeks prescribed for his wrist injury, and Collins has spent more than a quarter of the past year in a cast.

Some have expressed surprise that Collins returned to the diamond so quickly. Though the 2011 NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year won’t suit up behind the plate for the Jumbos, he’s hitting .373 with 20 RBIs and eight doubles through Thursday. And he’s right on schedule with rehabilitation. He asked his doctors and physical therapists for an aggressive timeline. He wanted to play in six months.

“Me dwelling on the fact that I can’t catch this year, it wouldn’t be productive for my personal performance or for my team in any way,” Collins said. “As a freshman and sophomore, I would always get caught up in everything in the game as opposed to just focusing on playing. As I’ve gotten older and better understood the key tenets of Tufts baseball, I’ve grown out of that old mentality.”

Alongside senior shorstop co−captain Sam Sager, who was playing for Watertown when Collins tore his elbow, Collins hasn’t missed a game for Tufts this spring, starting 17 at DH, four at first base and two in right field, returning to the location of the pop. And he’s helped guide freshmen Nick Barker and Bryan Egan, hitting .314 and .311, respectively, in the Tufts way behind the dish.

“We did, and Matt wanted to be back sooner,” coach John Casey said, when asked whether he expected Collins to return to All−NESCAC from this quickly. “It was just his doctors, and too many NESCAC schools wanting to graduate lawyers, I guess. From that standpoint, having Matty back gave us some flexibility in the lineup.”

Right after the injury occurred, Collins trotted in to warm up at first base for Watertown. He soon discovered that he couldn’t throw. He had nothing. The power evaporated. His slingshot regressed into an oversized, powerless noodle.

Later that game, Collins was called on to pinch−hit.

Pop!

He singled up the middle.

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