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Hammar takes long road back to pitcher’s mound

The freshman stays strong through a year-long rehab process after elbow surgery.   |   Chak Hee Lo/THE CHIMES

 

It is a beautiful spring day, and Biola’s baseball team is taking full advantage of it, with infielders going through drills, coaches barking out advice and pitchers playing catch while exchanging jokes.

a sinking suspicion

In the home bullpen, however, something much more serious is going on. Under the watchful eye of pitching coach Justin Hixon, freshman pitcher Christian Hammar slings fastball after fastball into the glove of junior catcher River Fawley.

To the untrained observer, Hammar’s bullpen session may also seem routine, but the massive scar on his left elbow tells a far different story. For Hammar, it serves as a reminder of an injury that ended his first season as an Eagle before it even began.

During the second inning of his final regular season game in high school, Hammar, who throws left-handed, started feeling some discomfort in that elbow. He did not think much of it at the time, until he threw a slider to the first batter he faced in the fourth inning.

“I felt [my elbow] pop,” Hammar said. “Worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Two pitches later, Hammar asked his high school manager to pull him from the game. Soon after, his sinking suspicion was confirmed. He had torn the ulnar-collateral ligament in his left elbow and would have to undergo Tommy John surgery.

The surgery, named after the former Major League Baseball player on whom it was first performed, is the universal treatment for UCL tears, a devastating and disturbingly common injury suffered primarily by pitchers. It involves taking a ligament from elsewhere in the patient’s body — in Hammar’s case, his wrist — to replace the torn UCL. Although most pitchers nowadays eventually return to the level they were at before the operation, recovery usually takes a full calendar year.  

persevering through the long rehab process

For Hammar, who had already committed to Biola, it meant he would have to sit out his entire freshman season of college. Fortunately, his future school saw an opportunity to support him. Head coach Jay Sullinger reassured Hammar his scholarship would not be pulled and the coach and his staff would be praying for him. Trevor Oaks, a former Biola pitcher now in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system, called Hammar as soon as he heard the news. Oaks went to the same high school as Hammar and also suffered a UCL tear in his senior year.

Hammar credits that phone call as one of the reasons he has been able to persevere through the long rehab process. The most important part, though, proved Hammar’s focus on the finish line.

“I just think about the end goal, which is pitching again, so that helps a lot,” Hammar said.

The path to that goal is not an easy one. Hammar could not use the full range of motion in his shoulder for two months after the surgery. He could not throw a baseball for four months nor throw off a pitching mound for six. At seven months into his rehab, he still cannot participate fully in practice.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge is coming out to baseball for four hours every day, just being out here with all my boys and having to do my own thing,” Hammar said.

Coming back stronger than ever

On the flip side, he stands poised to return much stronger than he was before the injury. The rehab allows him to focus on strengthening his entire left arm as well as his shoulder. Hixon says the team uses strength bands and small weights to help rehabbing players build muscle, as well as a consistent throwing program. Hammar now throws bullpen sessions three times per week.

“One of the biggest reasons Tommy John guys throw harder when they’re coming back is because of all the extra rehab that they’re doing with their shoulder and their elbow,” Hixon said.

Biola’s latest “Tommy John guy” has already seen the benefits.

“My arm has never felt better,” Hammar said. “My elbow feels strong, my shoulder feels really, really healthy.”

Hammar displayed his health with another solid bullpen session. He remains a long way from making his collegiate debut, but is definitely heading in the right direction.

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