- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 11, 2014
When the Big Ten coaches named Jacob Cronenworth one of the conference’s players to watch this season, there was little doubt he could make an immediate impact for the Michigan baseball team.
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So at one point, the only doubt that came was from the sophomore right-hander himself.
Toward the end of last season, Cronenworth felt a pain in his right shoulder. He took a few weeks off, hoping it would subside by the time the Wolverines entered the season’s final series against Nebraska.
When he got back on the mound against the Cornhuskers, his shoulder didn’t feel any better, and the pain was enough to keep him from pitching in the Big Ten Tournament. He tried to play again in the summer, but the agitation continued and he came to a crossroads.
“You kind of know what pain and soreness feels like,” Cronenworth said. “Pain is obviously what you don’t want, but soreness is good. When I had my shoulder problem, I knew it was pain.”
Pain caused by a torn labrum, that is.
It wasn’t the worst tear, but it was enough to take action sooner than later. Cronenworth returned home and was faced with two choices: undergo surgery and strengthen his rotator cuff through rehabilitation, or try rehab alone. After talking it through with his family, doctor and Michigan coach Erik Bakich, the choice was obvious — the former.
“I took the safe route,” Cronenworth said. “I had the choice to do rehab instead of surgery, so by doing that, I would’ve run the risk of injuring my shoulder again and feeling that pain again.”
Added Bakich: “It was the right decision to just go ahead and have the surgery. … That would’ve been a major blow to our team if he wasn’t able to pitch for us.”
Cronenworth underwent surgery July 3 and woke up to the good news that the procedure was successful. The St. Clair, Mich. native got back to work in a nine-month rehabilitation program through the University Health System’s MedSport program.
Looking back on his journey, Cronenworth thanks one person the most: Dale Hazard. Cronenworth referred to his physical therapist as the “seasoned vet of shoulder rehab and arm care,” and Hazard was by his side every step of the way.
“Honestly, he was the key to my success throughout the process of getting back to where I wanted to be,” Cronenworth said.
Beyond strengthening his shoulder, Cronenworth comes away from the experience with a valuable outlook on persistence.
“It really tested my patience, because the rehab process is a grind before you’re back to fully pitching,” he said. “One of the things I learned through the process was that patience is a virtue. People say that and don’t take it for what it is.”
Cronenworth wasn’t able to do much in the preseason, but he still went to every practice and traveled with the team on road trips. The frustration from not being at full capacity set in, so he found ways to get past his limitations, such as relaying fielded ground balls with his left hand.
When the season was just around the corner for the Wolverines (6-10-1), he began running through simulation games at 105 pitches each. And when the time came to make his first relief appearance back on the mound March 1, he won the game with four strikeouts. He also went 3-for-4 at the plate with two runs batted in, including the game winner on a sacrifice fly.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Croney,” Bakich said. “He worked extremely hard from the day he set foot on campus, and so everybody knew he would get back to helping the team as quickly as he could, which he has done.”
Since then, Cronenworth has earned two saves against Florida Gulf Coast and Princeton. He has relieved in five total innings, allowing just four hits and one run.
The question is if Cronenworth can keep up the performance. But according to him, he’s not worried at all about his shoulder bothering him again.
“I think my shoulder right now is the strongest it has ever been in my life, because I’ve never trained it that hard before,” Cronenworth said. “It’s all uphill from here.”