No baseball pitcher wants to hear the words "Tommy John surgery."
It's not that they represent an insurmountable obstacle, but they certainly indicate a long road to recovery. Cloquet senior Jon Baker knows more about the timetable than he'd like.
For the record, it's about a year, give or take.
Consequently, Baker won't be pitching at South Dakota State next spring. Instead, he will take a medical redshirt and join the Jackrabbits in 2021. The looming layoff is the result of a tear to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. Baker suffered the elbow injury during a May 14 home game against Grand Rapids.
"One pitch and it just snapped," Baker said by phone Wednesday. "All of a sudden it felt like something got pulled out of place and just snapped back really quick."
He knew something was wrong because "my fingers and everything were all tingly," though there wasn't an avalanche of pain the way you'd expect. That night, Baker held out hope that it wasn't the UCL, but when he awoke the next morning "swollen and super sore," the inevitable couldn't be delayed any longer.
A magnetic resonance imaging exam on Friday will determine if Baker needs Tommy John surgery. He said there's about a 70 percent chance that he will. Then it's hurry up and wait - and rehab - for the talented right-hander who produced a superb junior season for the Lumberjacks. Baker was 6-1 in 2018 with a 0.85 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 41 innings.
"I don't know if it's fully hit me how long it's going to be," he said.
Baker admits initially "I was kind of crushed," but he's coming around.
"Right now, I'm still a little bummed out, but I can feel the motivation coming," Baker said. "I've always had a good work ethic, and I think that's going to carry me."
Baker was in his fourth year as a starter at Cloquet. He played shortstop when he wasn't flinging high-80s fastballs at opposing hitters, but pitching is his bread and butter and what made him an NCAA Division I recruit.
When he came to the Lumberjacks as a freshman, Baker's potential was undeniable. But he was more interested in throwing as hard as he could rather than embracing the art of his craft.
"He's learned how to pitch," Cloquet coach Rick Norrgard said.
That means Norrgard knew who was getting the ball when the stakes were highest.
"He's always been that guy you go to in a big game," the coach said.
Baker, whose entire right arm is engulfed in a hard-plastic brace, has remained optimistic. While he won't be around to help the Lumberjacks (7-10) down the stretch, dealing with the injury now means he'll still be able to play all four years of college baseball.
Time was, Tommy John surgery - or ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction - was maddeningly unpredictable. These days, however, chances of a complete recovery "are estimated at 85 to 90 percent," according to Baseball Reference.
"He's been very upbeat about it," Norrgard said. "He'll have to work hard at it, and he knows that, but there's a bright future for him."
Kelley done, too
Baker isn't the only Cloquet standout to have a senior season cut short by injury.
Track star Kendra Kelley, defending Class AA state champion at 200 meters, is done for the year because of a quadriceps tear. Incidentally, Kelley's last race was at the Lake Superior Conference championships on May 14, the same day Baker went down.
Kelley, a multi-sport athlete who was the News Tribune's All-Area Player of the Year for girls soccer in 2017 and '18, will run at Division I North Dakota State. She was second in the Class AA 100 last spring.
But just like that, three weeks before what would have been her final state meet, Kelley's prep career is over.
"It's awful for her and her family," Lumberjacks coach Tim Prosen told the Cloquet Pine Journal. "But every high-end athlete will be injured sometime. She will run for North Dakota State and she may have to deal with injuries there. I told her that I will see her run faster in the future."
While Kelley couldn't be reached for comment, she replied to the news on Twitter by saying: "It's definitely the worst timing for such a common injury, but what a ride it's been."