Facing a cross-town rival Canyon Del Oro squad that backed his Ironwood Ridge freshman team into a small fourth-inning hole, reliever Joshua Berger started warming up to recover the lead one afternoon during April 2006.
But in the bullpen, the southpaw’s arm “went dead.”
Berger shook off the feeling and took the mound. Four batters later, Berger begged off the rubber.
“I told coach I couldn’t go anymore,” Berger said. “It felt like I’d pitched that whole game after five pitches.”
An energetic, lanky fast-talker who spent dugout time gut-checking his teammates, Berger took a doctor’s advice and tried physical therapy. It helped, but upon returning, the dead arm floated back to the surface.
After a year of off-and-on therapy, an MRI laid reality bare.
Surgery. What every pitcher — especially a young one — fears most.
Just 15 years old, Berger required arthroscopic labral repair — work nearly identical to that recently performed on veteran Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz.
With college a scant three years ahead, Berger and his family quickly decided to sacrifice his sophomore year in favor of freshly rehabbed quality time, perhaps in front of college scouts.
“If I was going to be ready for this year, I had to get it over with,” Berger said.
Four months after February’s 30-minute procedure left marks on his shoulder more akin to small acne scars, Berger burned through a therapy session at Oro Valley’s Adient-Gyllenhall clinic last Thursday.
The tough hour of rowing machines, weights and stretches left Berger somewhat sweaty. Twice a week, the pitcher and his über-supportive father, Kevin, hang out at their “home away from home.”
“We weren’t going to take no for an answer, and that’s something that I’m really proud of — for him to see this through, start to finish,” Kevin Berger said.
The healing process for pitchers can be complicated. Fiery youngsters often want to charge the mound immediately, rather than work through the regimented few months of motion recovery, before a slow re-introduction to pitching mechanics.
And unlike their paid-to-recover big league counterparts, the clock ticks steadily on future draft hopefuls.
Impatience isn’t the case with Berger, said physical therapist Darrell Allen, who tossed a rubber ball back and forth with the athlete.
“He’s doing fantastic. Everything’s going smoothly,” Allen said. “He’s an easy patient for me.”
Berger’s eyes narrowed slightly as he tugged a 30-pound weighted cable. For him, gutting out therapy is a privilege, since other doctors told him to hang up his glove. But his buoyant attitude moved the Bergers to seek a second opinion.
They soon crossed paths with Dr. Ty Endean, a Tucson orthopedic surgeon who serves as team doctor for six local high schools and assists with NFL draft physicals.
“He was hopeful about it,” Berger said. “Other guys made it sound like I should throw in the towel.”
The pitching arm’s repetitive motion puts excess strain on the biceps tendon labral complex — part of the soft tissue that composes the shoulder joint, Endean explained.
But whether Berger’s genetics or pitching mechanics sparked the tear, the surgeon couldn’t guess.
He summarized the effects quite easily: “Pain, pain, pain.”
Throwers and swimmers in their early 20s can be prone to such maladies. Endean couldn’t remember anyone Berger’s age with that particular injury he’d operated on, however. What stands out to the doctor, besides high recovery odds, is Berger’s zeal to work things through.
“As I have seen him in follow-ups, I would say his level of excitement is raising as he gets a chance to return to his chosen love,” Endean said.
None of this comes as a surprise to Trevor Harvey, who coached Berger during fall leagues and recalled the ballplayer’s sandlot mentality toward the game.
Though Berger often played first base, so did several kids on the squad. Rotated everywhere including the outfield, Berger seemed happy just to be on the field. Beyond enthusiasm, the kid’s also blessed with a great mentality for the game, Harvey said.
Harvey remembered Berger digging himself into a quick 0-2 hole at the plate against a tough pitcher from Sabino High. Berger shortened his grip and began fouling off pitches, drawing a walk after 14 throws.
On the mound, Berger did a great job of setting up batters, often leading with inside fastballs, then painting the corners to set the hook, he added.
“He’s one of those kids that you want to keep an eye on,” Harvey said. “I don’t think there was ever a doubt in his mind that he’d ever pick up a baseball again.”
Some of Harvey’s admiration springs from personal empathy. The 12-year high school coach, who helmed last year’s Ironwood Ridge freshman team, found his own southpaw pitching career ended by a similar shoulder injury.
When Berger’s shoulder forced him out of the rotation, he umpired Little League games and kept stats for the Nighthawk’s junior varsity squad, never removing his head from the game.
“Josh really has kind of an old-school baseball attitude,” Harvey said. “He’s got that attitude that not only is he there to play because he loves the game, but he’s there out of respect for the game.”
In a few weeks, Berger begins tentative throwing practice, before transitioning into off-season work with coaches.
Until then, his arm’s feeling good enough to sub for a local indie-rock band’s vacationing bassist to help burn off some energy.
Charged as he is to get back on the field, Berger says he’s content if all his efforts land him just a shot at college ball, instead of the big leagues.
To him, it’s all about the effort.
And besides, the recovery process has enlightened him to a career avenue — physical training.
“I just want to take it as far as it will go,” Berger said. “And once I’m there, I’ll be happy.”