Elbow healing, pitcher looks west

It happens all the time. One day you have a 4-1 record, the next day you need Tommy John reconstructive surgery.

For pitcher Chris Wietlispach ’08, his career-stalling elbow injury has become a blessing in disguise in his pursuit of the major leagues. Because the Ivy League does not allow its athletes to compete as fifth-year seniors, the pitcher is sitting out his final baseball season at Yale in order to maintain his final year of eligibility before likely enrolling in the fall as a graduate student at Michigan, where he will be allowed to play one more season.

The Ivy League’s regulations had left Wietlispach with two options: Take a year off from Yale or look elsewhere for graduate school. Eventually, over a dozen schools became interested in his pitching services, but Michigan’s team and graduate school snagged Wietlispach. He will return to the mound when he moves to the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment next fall.

But the year-long wait has left him in unfamiliar territory for now.

“It is very, very weird,” Wietlispach said of taking a year off from baseball. “Baseball has been a year-round sport for me, and I played multiple sports in high school, so I was always in season.”

The right-hander’s Yale career began unremarkably, as he amassed a 9.45 ERA in 13.1 innings as a freshman. But for a rookie reliever, 14 strikeouts to just six walks was a hint of the brilliance that would shine through in the next two years.

Wietlispach had his best year as a sophomore in 2006, when he won four games as a starter for the Elis and boasted a low 5.75 ERA. Then, coming off a satisfactory junior season, the Illinois native was put under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

The procedure, invented and perfected by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 for Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, involves harvesting a tendon from another joint and weaving it into the injured elbow. The recovery from the surgery ranges from six months to a year. For Wietlispach, his July surgery will allow him to play again in late spring after enduring almost a year of tri-weekly rehab sessions.

Suiting up as a Wolverine will be an interesting experience for the draft-hopeful pitcher. As essentially a fifth-year senior starting with a new team, Wietlispach can only hope that the team chemistry he found in his visit to Ann Arbor carries over into the 2009 season.

“I’m ready to start playing somewhere else,” he said. “I think it will be a very different experience from my time here.”

Yale catcher Ryan Lavarnway ’09 — Wietlispach’s battery mate for two years — said he believes the pitcher is doing what is best for him. He said Wietlispach added a great arm to the Bulldogs repertoire but the squad maintains good pitching depth without him.

“He’s definitely a Bulldog,” Lavarnway said. “He goes out there and he knows how to win and he’s got great stuff on the mound, but his best asset is his knowledge of the game.”

“He’s been such a consistent starter and someone that you feel so confident having on the mound,” center fielder Josh Cox ’08 added. “[Michigan’s] lucky to have him.”

Wietlispach’s resume includes Pitcher of the Year accolades in the six-team Alaskan Baseball League, famous for its Midnight Sun Baseball game — made possible by the literally endless daylight for summer in the Far North — that has sent players such as Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent to the major leagues.

Wietlispach pitched 1.65 and won four games for the Mat-Su Miners, whose players raved about him to Yale teammate and Alaska player Cox the following year.

Wietlispach hopes to take his impressive amateur career to a number of workouts with major-league clubs this summer, and he stands a good chance of being drafted. One of last year’s preseason polls even ranked him as one of the 100 best pitching prospects in the country.

“Major League Baseball is a dream career, and it became a pretty real possibility when I was in high school,” he said. “I’ve had my eyes on the prize, and that’s been my dream.”

A call from the majors during the June draft may even be enough to entice Wietlispach away from a year with the Baseball America 22nd-ranked Wolverines to begin his long-awaited professional career.

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