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Big Green Pitcher Engineers a Comeback

Dartmouth College pitcher Cole Sulser, left, chats with Big Green coach Bob Whalen during a March 26 practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. Dartmouth visits Columbia in the Ivy League Championship Series today. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Dartmouth College pitcher Cole Sulser, left, chats with Big Green coach Bob Whalen during a March 26 practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. Dartmouth visits Columbia in the Ivy League Championship Series today. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

Hanover — Cole Sulser has waited more than two years for this day, the day when he will help lead the Dartmouth College baseball team against Columbia in New York City during the best-of-three Ivy League championship series. That the fifth-year pitcher would get a chance to take the mound under such circumstances was cast in doubt after he tore a ligament in his elbow in April 2011. The engineering major then endured Tommy John surgery and roughly a year of rehabilitation.

The injury meant Sulser, a San Diego-area native, sat out the Big Green’s road loss to Princeton in the Ivy championship two years ago. He was also sidelined when Dartmouth fell at Cornell during the same stage last spring.

“Who knows what would have happened each of the last two years if he was available to pitch?” said Dartmouth coach Bob Whalen, whose team swept a doubleheader at Columbia on March 31. “That being said, it wouldn’t have been prudent, given the amount of work Cole put in, to even remotely take a chance last year. I told him I wasn’t willing to do that even if he wanted to.”

Thus, Sulser could only watch as Cornell clobbered a walk-off home run in the 11th inning last May to earn the Ivy title and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The bus ride home from Ithaca, N.Y., long and tiresome under normal circumstances, was even more dreary than usual.

“It was tough to have to sit back and see things not going our way and there was nothing I could do from a playing standpoint,” said Sulser, who traveled with the team and oversaw its bullpen last season.

Sulser entered this spring with a 15-3 career record and an .833 winning percentage, tied for the second-best in program history. He earned a slot in the starting rotation as a freshman and was Dartmouth’s Most Valuable Player as a sophomore, when he was 8-0 with a 3.74 ERA.

He was a big reason the Big Green won the 2010 Ivy title and beat Florida International in an NCAA tournament regional game, the team’s first victory at that level in 23 years. Sulser allowed two runs during a five-inning relief appearance in that clash, which was played in Miami with a heat index of 105 degrees.

As a junior, Sulser was 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA and struck out 49 batters while walking only four. Against Brown, however, he experienced tightness in his elbow that grew into outright pain. Sulser asked out of the contest with a lead in the seventh inning. Tests showed a ligament tear.

“The doctors aren’t sure if it’s because I threw too many pitches in my life or if it was just a freak thing,” Sulser said. “We can’t look back and say I should have avoided this or that, but it’s the kind of (diagnosis) every pitcher dreads.

“I was frustrated and sad, but I pretty much knew right away I didn’t want to be done playing baseball. I was going to give it everything I had to come back. I didn’t want to look back later and wonder what if.”

Tommy John was a major league pitcher who underwent what was then a pioneering operation in 1974 for ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. A tendon from elsewhere in the body, in Sulser’s case, his throwing forearm, is used to replace the torn ligament. While the operation has been refined and its success rate is now higher than 80 percent, the rehabilitation process is grueling and requires substantial patience. Whalen, however, wasn’t too worried about whether Sulser could handle the challenge.

“He’s a guy I knew was going to want to keep playing until he couldn’t keep playing anymore,” the coach said. “But still, (the surgery) takes a tremendous toll mentally and physically, and you have to work to get your body back to where it needs to be. That takes the pressure off your arm. Kids want to go out and throw right away, then they usually hurt their shoulder because they haven’t conditioned it while waiting for the elbow to recover.”

Sulser said he soon realized that even if he had immediate surgery and his rehabilitation went perfectly, he almost certainly wouldn’t be sharp enough to pitch effectively for Dartmouth in 2012. So he waited until school ended for the summer, had a 90-minute procedure done in southern California and wore a hard cast on his arm for two weeks. A supportive brace locked at 90 degrees followed the cast, and each subsequent week the range of motion would be increased. Sulser went to physical therapy three times per week and performed strengthening and stretching exercises on his own.

After about 18 weeks, Sulser began playing catch, throwing only 15 times per session and only at a distance of about 30 feet. After another two months he could throw 100 feet, and six months after his surgery he took to a mound and threw 50-foot pitches at about half speed.

“That’s the last thing you want to go through as a pitcher, and his coming back speaks to his work ethic,” said Dartmouth hurler Kyle Hunter, who will start Game 1 this afternoon against Columbia. “He’s come back stronger than he was before.”

Sulser said he finally knew his elbow would be all right the first time he pitched in a San Diego summer league game last year. His fastball and slider were working well and he was able to pinpoint the former pitch to the inside or outside of the plate, keeping hitters off-balance.

“There’s definitely some worry in the back of your mind,” he said, recalling the moment. “You’ve been babying it and taking it easy for so long, but then you just have to cut it loose and trust that (the operation) worked. In my mind, I needed to get back to where I was before the injury or that was probably it for me and baseball.

“Being able to go out there and throw a full inning made me very happy.”

Whalen said he was thrilled when he saw Sulser’s pitch velocity and location during 2012 fall practice. A senior in Dartmouth’s five-year engineering program, the Big Green captain is 5-2 with a 2.34 ERA and has struck out 51 batters while walking 12. He struggled briefly at the season’s midpoint, but has bounced back and is tied for 15th nationally with four complete games.

“Not only is it my last year, but it’s been a long time coming,” Sulser said with a smile. “It just makes me very excited for the weekend. I feel fortunate to be in this position because I know things could have gone very differently. The surgery might not have worked or I might not have been pitcher I was once, but I’m glad I have the chance to make this season what I hoped it would be.”

Whalen doesn’t usually issue compliments freely, but they come out fast when Sulser is the topic of conversation.

“He doesn’t make excuses and he wants the responsibility for the result, win or lose,” the coach said. “You hope no one has to go through what he’s been through, but I knew if anyone could make it back, it was Cole.”

Notes: The teams will play a doubleheader today with a third game tomorrow if needed. ... Dartmouth is in the championship series for a sixth consecutive year, having won it in 2009 and 2010. The latter triumph came at Columbia, which won the series in Hanover in 2008. … This is the ninth trip to the series overall for Dartmouth, all of them coming in the last 14 seasons. The Big Green is 2-6 in such appearances. … Dartmouth has a six-game winning streak at Columbia’s Robertson Field. … The Lions started 2-11 against a tough nonconference schedule, but have won 22 of their last 30 games and topped the Ivies with a 16-4 record against league rivals. … The series victor advances to one of 16 NCAA regionals, to begin on May 31 at various campus sites. ... This weekend’s game will not be featured on local radio, but fans can listen or watch the contests by going to www.dartmouthsports.com.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.