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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Nashua North pitcher truly a comeback kid

NASHUA – Mike Robert stared at the doctor in disbelief.

He thought he would be out maybe four to six weeks with an arm ailment. The doctor told him 18 months. ...

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NASHUA – Mike Robert stared at the doctor in disbelief.

He thought he would be out maybe four to six weeks with an arm ailment. The doctor told him 18 months.

“I thought,” he said, “that might be the last time I would ever throw a baseball. ... It felt like I had run into a brick wall.”

But he ran through it instead. Robert, who shattered his elbow and tore his tendon, is two years removed from Tommy John surgery and as a senior is developing into one of if not the ace of the Nashua High School North pitching staff.

“It’s a challenge,” North coach Kyle Harvell said of Robert’s comeback. “When you’re 15 years old and you get the challenge, then you have even more time to respond to the challenge.”

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound lefty finally arrived to where he always felt he should be last week when he one-hit rival Nashua South, striking out 11 in a mercy-rule shortened five inning affair. But that performance wasn’t surprising to the North coaching staff.

“The potential was always there, everybody saw it,” North pitching coach Jim Harvell said. “We said, ‘OK, this is your time, your year.’”

But oh, what a road to get there. Robert was a promising junior varsity pitcher as a freshman at North but was simply pitching too much between Babe Ruth baseball, high school, and AAU level teams. He said he averaged some 15-20 innings a week.

It all caught up with him one day in August of 2010 when he was competing for a team in upstate New York that had contacted him and asked if he wanted to pitch for them in a summer tournament.

“It was the third inning, and my arm was a little sore, but I decided I might as well keep pitching,” Robert said. “I threw a fastball and it probably bounced halfway to the plate. I just felt the tendon in my elbow snap and my arm just hung.”

Robert said it was the most pain he had ever felt. An immediate trip to the hospital ensued and he was told he needed Tommy John surgery. He didn’t even know what that was. But he looked it up when he got home, which was the longest ride he’d ever taken.

“It was awful,” he said. “And my elbow hurt the whole time. To be honest, I didn’t really know the full effect yet. I knew something was wrong, but not to the extent that it was. I was pretty optimistic, thinking ‘This is bad, but I’ll get through it’, but when I found out I needed Tommy John, I was pretty worried.”

He saw it was a common injury doing is research, but not so common for players about to enter their sophomore year in high school. That year, obviously, was erased as far as baseball went. Robert had one surgery in October to repair the shattered elbow and then another in December of 2010 to repair the tendon.

What followed was a long rehab, one he was willing to undergo. He resisted any urge to call it quits.

“Baseball’s my love,” he said. “I love playing the game. I would give up anything to play baseball. Baseball is who I am, it’s where I made all my best friends. So I decided I was going to put 110 percent into recovery, make a full comeback, and I can be better than I was before I got hurt.”

He didn’t pick up a baseball until a year later, at one of the local indoor facilities. His father, Mark, was on the receiving end of a throw.

“He said ‘Don’t be scared to put a little behind it,’” Robert said. “Trust the therapy you’ve been doing and the doctors that gave you the surgery and you’ll be just fine.”

Before then, he was in a metal cast, and had to learn how to write right-handed. He went to physical therapy in Boston three or four times a week. There were some days where moving his elbow was painful, but he was told that would be normal, he would get better.

He did, after throwing 40 feet, then 60, then 250, throwing bullpens, doing (exercise) band work, dedicating two hours a day. But for his junior year, the Titan braintrust brought him along slowly, giving him only eight innings on the mound, all in relief.

“He was very good after the surgery of not rushing back to anything,” Kyle Harvell said. “They told him after 12 months he could start to do some things and he thought that meant everything. We slowed him down. He’s a very strong-willed kid, and that’s a testament to Mike the person. He wasn’t going to be stopped.”

The first competition last spring was no problem. “I totally put (the injury) out of my mind,” Robert said.

It was last summer, pitching for an AAU team based in Hudson, Mass., when Robert began airing it out, topping off at 88 miles an hour.

The Southern New Hampshire University coaches liked what they saw and, despite the injury, offered him a roster spot for next season, which he accepted. Other schools, such as University of Rhode Island, Merrimack College, UMass-Amherst called as well. But SNHU showed the most interest, and Robert, an A and B student, will attend there in the fall to study early childhood education.

“I’ve always been really good with kids,” he said. “And I love teaching new things. ... And I’m ready to go pitch at the next level.”

He didn’t sleep well last Wednesday night after his performance against South, which he called his best game.

“The adrenalin was pumping,” he said. “I just kept replaying the images of me pitching in my head over and over. I’ll never forget it.”

He had fanned 12 and allowed just two hits in a start against Malden Catholic earlier in the season, so Robert knew he was capable. But what was more remarkable was he was an emergency starter, asked to fill-in for Kyle McCarthy, who had gone home sick.

In the last year, the Harvells and former North coach Will Henderson worked hard with Robert’s delivery, getting his pitches down to the knees.

“There’s a lot there,” Kyle Harvell said. “If he can develop a third pitch, and control his other two (fastball, curve), he’s going to be pretty good.”

“They switched me all around,” Robert said. “They made me who I am today, pitching. I thank them greatly, all of them.”

Moral of the story? Don’t overextend your arm.

“Put high school first,” Robert said. “If you have to tell your (youth) coach you can’t throw, tell him. Tommy John’s rough. You really have to fight to get through it.”

It’s a fight Mike Robert is winning hands down.