CLEMSON, S.C.--In early May of 2004, Clemson pitching coach Kevin O’Sullivan received a call on his cell phone as he stood in the Tigers’ dugout during a home victory against Florida State.
On the other end was pitcher Jason Berken, who was leaving a visit with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Andrews had just told Berken that he had a completely torn ligament in his throwing elbow.
“It brought him to his knees,” O’Sullivan said.
The ensuing surgery shelved Berken for the entire 2005 season, and now he views the ordeal as the most trying of his life. But the righthander said he’s fully recovered now and his arm feels stronger than ever entering his redshirt junior season.
“Not playing was something new for me, because I had played sports year-round since I was 8,” Berken said. “Not being able to compete was the big thing.”
Better Than Ever
When Berken had surgery in June 2004, he said he looked forward to “getting a new arm.” Now, he believes that forecast has been fulfilled, as he has gained velocity and an expanded repertoire of pitches. His fastball, which rarely hit 92 mph before, now reaches 94 on occasion. On top of that, he has picked up a slider.
Berken, from De Pere, Wis., was considered the favorite to become the Friday starter on a pitching staff that returns largely intact.
Berken remained highly visible during the rehabilitation process. He was voted one of the team’s three captains last season, a high honor given that he never stepped foot on the field. He attended most of the games, making an effort to be the first person off the bench to congratulate or console a teammate.
Clemson, which finished 43-23 and came within a victory of its first College World Series appearance since 2002, is considered a likely candidate to end up in Omaha this season, entering the season ranked second. And Berken appears capable of leading the way.
“He’s full of life,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got energy, and he’s very mature for his age. Kids just kind of gravitate to him. I think they look up to him and respect him for what he had to go through in his rehab and everything. He was always with the team last year even when he wasn’t playing. He was kind of an emotional lift.”
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
Berken admits the first month was difficult, because he wasn’t used to being a bystander. He was the Tigers’ No. 1 starter in 2004, posting a team-best 2.53 ERA in 10 starts while amassing a streak of 30 innings without allowing an earned run. And he did most of that knowing he had a bum elbow.
Berken was pitching to hitters by the time Clemson played host to the NCAA Regional last June. He stayed on campus over the summer, taking 12 hours of classes and spending lots of time on the mound.
For the first five to six months of his rehab, his pitches were limited to fastballs and changeups. But Berken, who already has an excellent curveball, eventually began honing a slider.
“I always wanted to develop a slider because I always threw a hard curve,” he said. “I wanted a true slider and a true curve. The slider is probably my best pitch now besides my fastball. With my changeup, I’ve got two more pitches that I can throw whenever.”
Said O’Sullivan: “During rehab, he visualized how he’d throw a slider. He toyed with it when he came back, and then he executed it. His mental makeup is just phenomenal.”
Berken has Feb. 17 circled on his calendar. That’s when Clemson will open the season with a three-game home series against James Madison. Berken has invited family and friends from Wisconsin to watch and celebrate his return.
Berken admits to feeling some apprehension about taking the mound again. But the important part is that Berken knows there’s nothing wrong with his arm anymore.
“You can throw in the bullpen all you want and be lights-out,” he said. “But until you get on the mound and face that hitter in a game situation, it’s kind of hard to judge where you’re at. But the main thing is I know my arm is fixed. The best surgeon in the world fixed my arm. Knowing that is a huge relief.”Larry Williams covers Clemson athletics for the (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier.