Quinn Flanagan delivers a pitch during the Big Train's 6-3 win over the Gaithersburg Giants on June 24.
Quinn Flanagan felt something in his elbow pop. The then-high-school junior had made it to the fourth inning of the season opener, but the right-hander could tell something was wrong.
“[I] tried to throw another pitch,” said Flanagan, now a rising sophomore at the University of Arizona. “I felt pain in [my elbow] so I decided to shut it down.”
After an MRI determined Flanagan had a ruptured tendon and would require Tommy John surgery, the pitcher worried about how his high school and future college coaches would react.
The year before, Flanagan had committed to play baseball at Arizona once he graduated high school. Much to his relief, despite his setback, his Arizona coaches supported him throughout his recovery, and he signed his letter of intent on November 9, 2016.
“It’s just, knowing that you have a place to play next year, that really gives you something to look forward to and a goal to reach,” he said.
The coaching staff worked to bring Flanagan down to Tucson once or twice a month, to meet with the team and get checked by their athletic trainer. “It was huge,” Flanagan said. “Just from a confidence standpoint...knowing that these guys still [had] a plan for me and nothing had really changed. Obviously I was hurt but they still had plans for my future.”
But for Flanagan, it wasn’t the physical recovery that was the hardest; it was maintaining a mental toughness that he needed the most focus on. “It was very frustrating [not being able to play,” Flanagan said. “You kind of miss the game, just want to be out there. [But] you know you’ve got to take it slow, so you don’t come back and hurt yourself again. That’s the biggest part.”
To stay mentally tough, Flanagan focused on taking his recovery day-by-day, knowing that taking it slow was best for his baseball career in the long run. “[He] never rattled, never cracked, never used it as an excuse,” Arizona Pitching Coach Dave Lawn said. “He just came out and pitched. A lot of times guys get out of shape, drag the blanket on the ground feeling sorry. [There is] nothing farther from the truth [with Flanagan]. He was determined.”
That was two years ago. Now, thanks to that perseverance, Flanagan is back to pitching. In the fall of 2017, the then-freshman in college pitched a couple innings of an intersquad scrimmage. It was during that game, as well as a few others during the fall winter, that Arizona pitching coach Dave Lawn noticed that Flanagan still wasn’t back to his old self.
To Lawn and the rest of the staff, giving Flanagan time to recover and regain his strength and mound presence was the main concern.
“[We] sat him down and talked about it,” Lawn said. “Both parties agreed that [Flanagan redshirting] was the best decision. [We] were really pleased and really glad he agreed to redshirt.”
But Lawn knew that Flanagan was on the right track before the spring season even started. “Toward the end of prep for the spring season, [Flanagan] shut down [our] best starters for four or five innings,” said Lawn.
This summer, as Flanagan continues his recovery and rehab with the Bethesda Big Train, taking it day-by-day is as important as ever.
“It’s what we call baby steps,” said assistant coach Galvin Morris. “It’s a long season—we play 40 games in two months—so he’s going to get a lot of work in.”
So far Flanagan has started three games in Bethesda, both at home against the Rockville Express. In the first, on June 9, he lasted four innings, giving up one run on one hit, walking two and striking out two. With two outs in the fourth, the righty seemed to tire.
“I just felt like I kind of hit a wall,” said Flanagan after the game. “[I] just started losing the feel for everything. But I was able to piece [it] together to get that last out.” Flanagan’s work backed Bethesda’s success in its 4-1 win over Rockville.
Then, in a June 17 appearance in the Big Train’s 14-5 win over the Express, Flanagan pitched 4 innings, giving up three runs on five hits and one walk, striking out one. After the game, head coach Sal Colangelo spoke highly of his righty’s pitching.
“Quinn was great, he pounded the zone, did what he was supposed to do,” said Colangelo. “I couldn’t ask for more.”
The sophomore also started the Big Train’s come-from-behind win on June 24, lasting one inning and giving up three runs on three hits and two walks, striking out one. That start showed just how important taking time for a strong recovery is for Flanagan.
“It’s going to be a slow process for him,” said Morris. “Hopefully by the end of the year…he’s going to step up big for us [and] give us more innings if need be.”
Flanagan expressed his excitement for the summer season on day one, made most evident by his backward-facing jersey, which he had thrown on to take his headshot for the Big Train website. That positive attitude that helped him through surgery and his recover still present, with the righty just excited to be back playing baseball.
“It’ll be fun to see the team we put together, and how we do this summer,” said the righty, not knowing that the team would break a franchise record (http://www.bigtrain.org/news/headlines/index.html?article_id=591) in the first nine games of the season.