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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sweeney feels great – 6 months after TJ Surgery

Jim Ecker        

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Kellen Sweeney sent a message to all the scouts at the Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase at Perfect Game USA this weekend. Each sweet “crack” of his bat drummed it home, loud and clear. So did his relieved, happy smiles.

Yes, Kellen Sweeney is back.

Less than six months after having Tommy John Surgery on his right arm in August, the Aflac All-American from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is letting it rip in the batting cage again, with no fear and no pain. And on top of that, his throwing program is going so well that he’ll probably be cleared for full throwing activity in just a few weeks, once he shows therapists that his arm is completely healthy and strong again. He’s sure it is, but has to take it step by step.

“I feel great,” Sweeney said after taking live Batting Practice against pitchers who threw in the mid- to high-80s. “Yeah, I just proved to everybody that I’m back, I’m stronger than ever.”

Sweeney, 18, wasn’t bragging, because that’s not his style. He was just relieved, happy, confident. All of the above.

He’s been swinging at Perfect Game headquarters in Cedar Rapids since early January, often with his brother, Ryan, an outfielder with the Oakland A’s, but he hadn’t face live pitching until the Showcase here Saturday and Sunday.

“I think I did pretty well,” he said. “Even those guys who were throwing in the (high) 80s, for some reason it seemed slow today for me, but I guess that’s a good thing.”

Jonathan Musser, a 6-foot-5 Iowan who has signed with Nebraska, tried to slip an 88 mph fastball past Sweeney, but it probably would have been a double to deep right-center if the net hadn’t knocked it down. Sweeney’s face lit up, but not because he tagged an old friend.

Yes, he’s back.

It’s remarkable, really. Sweeney had Tommy John Surgery on Aug. 26th, and less than six months later he’s nearly 100 percent again.

When Sweeney had the operation, he thought he might spend his senior year at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School as a designated hitter or first baseman, giving his right arm more time to fully heal and recover. Now he’s thinking he’ll probably be back at shortstop for the J-Hawks this year, back where he wants to be.

“Yeah, I’m thinking shortstop, just because I’m so far with my throwing program,” he said. “I’ll know more in the spring, when I start playing and decide what position I’ll play.”

First he has to reach 180 feet in his throwing program with the therapists. That will come in a few weeks. Then he’ll need to go in the hole between shortstop and third base and make the long throw to first. That will come on a field this spring, and then he’ll know for sure.

“I think I’ll be pretty timid to do it, but I think I’ll get it done,” he remarked.

Sweeney is ranked 25th in the Class of 2010 by Perfect Game USA, despite the surgery. He’s signed with the University of San Diego but plans to keep his options open, pending the draft. He’s shown scouts he can swing the bat again, so the next step will be showing he can play in the field. One thing is certain, however. He’s finished as a pitcher, at least for now. That’s how he got hurt, throwing a pitch in a high school playoff game last July.

“Maybe three or four years down the road I’ll pitch, if I go to college or something,” he said, “but I don’t really want to.”

He doesn’t know what to expect in the draft, but doesn’t sound worried about it.

“The draft is a funny thing,” he said. “People will tell you stuff, but you don’t really know until that day. I’ll know more after the spring, to see how far I come along and how healthy I am.”

Ryan Sweeney has given Kellen some brotherly advice and support during the past six months. That’s helped, too.

“He just told me to keep my head up,” Kellen said. “He called me the day I found out (that he needed Tommy John Surgery). He was like, ‘You can do this.’ There are so many guys on his team that had it and they’re coming back strong.”

That includes Andrew Bailey, the Oakland A’s relief pitcher who was named the American League Rookie of the Year for the 2009 season. Sweeney was waiting for his brother after a game in Minnesota last season when Bailey came up to talk.

“He (Bailey) says you have to keep to your program and do all the stuff you need to do to come back,” said Sweeney, who appreciated the advice. “He’s a big leaguer and he’s gone through it, and he knows you have to work hard to get back where you need to be.”

Sweeney also appreciates all the help he’s received from his therapists, led by Ted Kepros of Physiotherapy Associates in Cedar Rapids. Kepros and company have the seal of approval of Dr. James Andrews, the famed surgeon who repaired Sweeney’s arm.

“I feel even stronger than I was before,” Sweeney said. “I mean, all the therapy and all the weight training and everything I’ve had to do throughout the process has just made me stronger. And I feel great.”

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