COLUMBIA, S.C.—Wil Crowe never suspected anything was wrong. Even when it happened, and the fibers in his elbow finally snapped, he felt nothing. No pain. Just a pop in his joint, like he had just cracked a knuckle.
The 2015 season had been a struggle for the South Carolina righthander, then a sophomore. The year before, Crowe was a Freshman All-American, going 8-3, 2.75 and positioning himself to be the next great Gamecocks ace. But on this day, April 10, 2015, the pitcher took the mound in Gainesville, Fla., as a shell of his freshman self. He was 3-4, 4.91 that year. Though his arm had bothered him earlier in the season, he thought nothing of it. He simply didn’t have his command or the crispness that he had the season before, and he wasn’t sure why.
In this April matchup against Southeastern Conference rival Florida, Crowe found himself scuffling again, his team down, 3-2, entering the bottom of the fourth. With two outs in the frame, Crowe threw a 3-2 fastball on the outside corner to Mike Rivera to coax an inning-ending lineout to third.
That’s when Crowe felt it. The pop.
“Well, does it hurt?” his coaches asked him when he returned to the dugout.
“No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Can you throw?”
The next day, Crowe had an MRI exam and made the dreaded visit to Dr. James Andrews. “Does any of this hurt?” Again the answer was no. Andrews checked the MRI a second time. “It definitely is torn.”
Crowe faced a decision: Try to rehab his torn ulnar collateral ligament or have Tommy John surgery. He opted for surgery, and it was in that moment that he finally felt any sort of pain at all.
“It’s not what you want to hear, and it hurts you a lot,” Crowe said two years later while sitting in the Gamecocks’ trophy room at Founders Park. “And I think the biggest thing is I couldn’t help my team anymore and I couldn’t be with the guys. I was no longer a part of this.”
South Carolina was without its ace for the final stretch of the season and for the entirety of the following year. For Crowe, who was preparing to enter his draft year, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
A big-bodied, 6-foot-2, 245-pound righthander with a mid-90s fastball and a four-pitch mix, Crowe likely would’ve been drafted somewhere in the first two rounds had he pitched his junior year. Instead, Crowe and evaluators faced a conundrum last June.
Crowe had an upper-round profile—but he also had a yearlong gap in his resume. The major league clubs who had liked Crowe out of high school and in his freshman year simply hadn’t seen him pitch. Would he be the same pitcher after Tommy John rehab? Do you take that gamble?
For Crowe, who ultimately fell to the 21st round to the Indians (who also drafted him in the 31st round out of high school), there were no questions in his mind. He knew he was the same guy who was a Freshman All-American in 2015. He had no qualms with staying at South Carolina and proving it.
“I wanted to be here, I did,” Crowe said. “With that being said, I wasn’t going to turn down money if it’s what me and my family thought was appropriate for me to leave. And we let people know, ‘Hey, I’m not going to sell myself short.’ I know the person I was, and I knew the person I could be, and we kind of went after it and said, ‘If you guys are willing, then we’ll take a chance, and if you’re not, we’re not.’
“And I think it was an hour into Day One, when I was like, ‘I don’t even care anymore.’ I called coach (Chad Holbrook) and texted him and told him that I was coming back and I wanted to be here with the guys and wanted to do something special and make history.”
ACE IN THE HOLE
Crowe knew he wanted to be a Gamecock the second he stepped on the Founder’s Park field.
As a high school recruit out of a heavily stocked Tennessee prep class, Crowe took the mound and was in awe of his surroundings. Opened in 2009, the facility is one of the finest in college baseball, with modern amenities and the state’s signature palmetto trees dotting the outfield sightlines. The stands were empty the day he visited, but Crowe could just visualize the hordes of raucous fans in garnet and black.
Crowe never anticipated he’d be sitting among them.
Even though he didn’t pitch in 2016, Crowe made it a point to not miss a single game. He’d stream all of the Gamecocks’ road games from his phone, and for home games, he’d sit in the first row, right behind the dugout, cheering as loudly as he could. At times—especially if the Gamecocks struggled—Crowe would feel a sense of helplessness.
“He handled it probably better than most would,” said junior righthander Clarke Schmidt, who emerged as South Carolina’s Friday starter in Crowe’s absence. “I know it pays a toll on a lot of people, and emotionally it was a big toll on him, and the way he handled it—few people can handle it like he did. And he had to take the load on, and he worked hard, and he was always in the training room and doing extra stuff.”
“And to come out here and see the stuff he has now, I think it’s gone up a notch from what he had before the Tommy John, so it’s special to see.”
When Crowe announced his return to school, he instantly elevated South Carolina’s Omaha chances. Along with Schmidt, who was 3-0, 1.04 in his first four starts this spring, and sophomore righthander Adam Hill (1-2, 1.54), Crowe belongs to one of the most formidable weekend rotations in the country.
Going 3-0, 2.73 with 36 strikeouts to 11 walks in 29.2 innings, Crowe has seemingly returned to his 2015 form—and perhaps a tick or two better. In his March 4 start against rival Clemson at Fluor Field in Greenville, Crowe’s fastball sat comfortably in the 92-94 mph range, touching as high as 97 mph with several 95s and 96s sprinkled in. He commanded an upper 70s curveball, backdooring it to his arm side, used a low-80s slider as a swing-and-miss offering, and he went to his mid-80s changeup often against lefthanded hitters, coaxing several awkward swings.
“As I came up in later at-bats, he started running two-seams away and sliders, curveballs, changeups,” said Beer, who homered in the first inning against Crowe but was later held in check. “He really threw everything but the kitchen sink at me, so you just have to be patient in those situations. And to be honest, you can’t really be upset if a guy like that throws a great pitch and gets you out. He’s such a great pitcher.”
Crowe had some anxiety when he got back on a mound for the first time after the surgery—would his stuff be the same? But Crowe said he leaned on his faith to help him clear his head, and if anything, he said his fastball feels livelier, and the confidence in his secondary offerings has soared, too.
“I just told myself, ‘The Lord has given me a plan, and the Lord has given me this platform to shine for him. And He’s given me a process, and if it was in His plan for me to hurt my arm again, then it’s going to happen, and I have no control over that,” Crowe said. “I told myself that, and it fired me up. I was instantly able to throw the curveball and throw the slider. Didn’t worry about the fastball.
“Just was letting it rip.”