By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the spring of 2008, it was a fair question. Which UVa baseball recruit was the better prospect: St. Albans ace Danny Hultzen or another left-handed pitcher from a D.C. private school, his friend Scott Silverstein?
Many scouts gave the edge to Silverstein, a St. John’s College High senior whose fastball traveled 90-plus miles per hour and who, at 6-6, 230 pounds, was an unnerving sight for batters.
“Scott, after his junior year, was throwing harder than Danny and would wow you a little bit more with his stuff,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor recalled.
“Now, Danny continued developing through his senior year, but at the time when they both decided to come to Virginia, Scott’s stuff was better.”
Hultzen’s feats as a Cavalier have been well-chronicled. In 2009, he was the ACC freshman of the year and helped UVa advance to the College World Series for the first time in school history. As a sophomore, he was named ACC pitcher of the year and helped the Wahoos win a school-record 51 games and reach an NCAA super regional.
His promise remains unfulfilled, through no fault of his own.
Since the end of his senior season at St. John’s, he’s had two operations to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He has yet to pitch for Virginia. He’s appeared in a total of 19 games — all in 2009 — as a first baseman, designated hitter or pinch hitter. He had to redshirt this season.
And still Silverstein perseveres. The pain in his shoulder is at last gone, his arm is getting stronger, and he remains convinced that the day is coming when he and his roommate Hultzen, who played together in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase youth program, will again be part of the same pitching rotation.
“I’m getting close,” Silverstein said a smile.
O’Connor said: “Scott’s very determined. He’s a very motivated guy. He remembers back when he pitched, and he was very, very successful.”
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As a schoolboy, Silverstein had scholarship offers from some 200 colleges, said his father, Steve. Before his injury, Silverstein was projected to be an early-round pick in the 2008 major-league draft.
“Going into his senior year,” O’Connor said, “I would say that he was probably one of the top five or 10 left-handed [high school] pitchers in the country.”
Early in his senior season, however, Silverstein experienced sharp pain in his throwing shoulder, and the direction of his career changed. He wasn’t allowed to pitch that spring, though he played in the field and batted for St. John’s. The Washington Nationals drafted him in the 32nd round, but the injury had damaged his stock. On June 11, 2008, Dr. Ben Shaffer operated on Silverstein’s shoulder.
The diagnosis was a tear of the superior labrum, anterior to posterior. Shaffer, then the Nationals’ team physician, trained under renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and “has a great reputation,” Steve Silverstein said.
Sometimes, though, that operation “just doesn’t take,” Silverstein’s father said, and that’s apparently what happened in this case.
“I had the surgery, and then I didn’t throw for four or five months,” Silverstein recalled. “And then I pick up a ball, and it still doesn’t feel right. I throw for a couple weeks, and I’m not progressing at all.”
Silverstein’s medical team at UVa includes athletic trainer Brian McGuire and Dr. Eric Carson, an orthopedic surgeon who works closely with the baseball program.
“There were a couple points when I was frustrated, as was Scott,” McGuire said this week. “You kind of have a timetable in your mind. I wouldn’t say he was moving backwards; he was just kind of stagnant.”
The Cavaliers’ 2009 season was under way, and Silverstein was no closer to returning to the mound. A cortisone shot helped, but the relief was short-lived.
“I was throwing and I felt good — I was playing catch and starting to progress — and then all of the sudden it stopped feeling good and started going back to the way it was,” said Silverstein, who grew up in Brookeville, Md.
Nearly a year had passed since the first operation, and his recovery had stalled. So Silverstein and his father flew to Birmingham, Ala., to meet with Andrews, who in 1972 had studied sports medicine at UVa under Dr. Frank McCue.
Andrews gave Silverstein another cortisone shot and prescribed six weeks of rest.
“This was a couple days off we got home from” the College World Series in 2009, Silverstein recalled. “So I spent all summer here, rehabbing, not throwing, just trying to get stronger and stretch a little bit, make it more flexible.
“Then I started throwing again right before school starts. It feels a lot better this time, and I get to the point where I’m actually pitching in [intrasquad games], and I threw an inning, and it felt great, on a Friday.
“A week later, I throw again, and it’s a little less good. And the week after that, I tried to pitch again, and I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew I needed to have [a second surgery].”
A week later, on Oct. 9, 2009, Andrews operated on Silverstein in Alabama.
“He’s the real deal,” Silverstein said of the legendary surgeon whose patients include Roger Clemens, Peyton Manning, Drew Bees, Bo Jackson and Troy Aikman.
That said, Silverstein doesn’t blame Shaffer for the problems that followed the first operation. “I just think it was a freak thing,” Silverstein said. “It just didn’t heal.”
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The realization that he would have to embark on another grueling rehabilitation program — as well as miss the Cavaliers’ 2010 season — shook Silverstein and those around him.
“He was devastated, as were we all,” McGuire said. “But he handled it as well as anybody could.”
The pain and sweat and frustration that come with a second lengthy rehab might overwhelm some players. Silverstein never considered quitting.
“I don’t like it when people ask me if I’m still playing, if I’m still trying to play, because it’s what I want to do,” Silverstein said. “I wouldn’t have gone through the first one if I wasn’t willing to put in the work.
“I’m just thankful I had the opportunity. People keep giving me opportunities to do this stuff. I don’t care how long it takes.”
After the first operation, Silverstein’s left arm stayed in a sling for about four weeks. The sling stayed on this time for “six weeks,” he said, “just because it was a revision.”
Andrews had him wait longer, too, to begin throwing again, Silverstein said, “which probably made a big difference, because I don’t think I was quite strong enough [the first time].”
Strength hasn’t been a problem this time. Silverstein has had no problems, in fact.
“It’s night and day,” said Karl Kuhn, Virginia’s pitching coach.
“It’s 100 percent different,” Silverstein said. “It’s not comparable to last time. Even stretching on the table, it’s not even comparable to last time. I’m full strength, with full range of motion.”
Silverstein, who’s working on UVa’s sports turf maintenance crew this summer, goes through rehab sessions with McGuire about three times a week. For most of the past two years, they’ve met more often that, and McGuire, like Kuhn, sees a dramatic difference in Silverstein.
“First and foremost, he doesn’t have pain when he throws,” McGuire said. “He has normal range of motion and stability in the shoulder.”
When he started throwing again in April, in sessions with Kuhn, Silverstein was tentative.
“You’re so used to having it hurt,” Silverstein said. “All of the sudden now it doesn’t hurt, and you don’t want to throw, because you’re afraid it’s going to hurt. So it’s hard to sort of let it go.”
That phase passed quickly. In long toss, he began at 40 feet and progressed back to 120, and “then started adding more throws,” Silverstein said.
His father said: “There’s never been pain, there’s never been inflammation [this time] … I firmly believe — and Andrews has told me this — he’s fully healed.”
Silverstein has not pitched off the mound to a batter since his second surgery, but he hopes to clear that hurdle next month “and hopefully be ready for fall ball,” he said.
His dream, of course, is to pitch for the ‘Hoos in 2011, and O’Connor would love to have an effective Scott Silverstein in the rotation. But the Cavaliers’ skipper, who was a star pitcher at Creighton, is proceeding cautiously.
“All the signs that we see at this point are positive,” O’Connor said, “but Scott has now had two major shoulder surgeries, and for a pitcher that’s a lot to overcome.”
O’Connor has seen other pitchers try to recover from torn labrums. Some made it back; some didn’t. Silverstein’s shoulder is healthy again, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be the dominant pitcher he was at St. John’s.
“The tough thing in Scott’s situation is that he hasn’t pitched competitively for over two years,” O’Connor said. “But I tell you, his attitude has been great all along. He continues to work at it, he’s a wonderful teammate, and I believe there will come a day when he’ll be able to help our team.”
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Steve Silverstein remembers an evening in Charlottesville last winter when he was sitting in his car, waiting for the team’s workouts to end so he could take his son and Hultzen out to dinner.
“It was dark outside, and there was a knock on the window,” the elder Silverstein said. “It was Coach O’Connor, and he told me to come out of the car. I came out, and he said to me, ‘Steve, I just want to let you know that you and Scott have nothing to worry about here at the University of Virginia. I am standing 100 percent behind your son, and he’s going to be OK, and everything’s going to work out.’
“And he gave me a hug. That says a lot about O’Connor to a father who’s wondering if his kid is going to still be on scholarship. Are they going to stand behind him? I can’t tell you what that meant to me.
“If Scott comes back all the way, it would be a hell of a story. But it reflects not only on him, but on the program.”
The best-case scenario has Silverstein returning to the mound next season and showing the stuff that dazzled pro scouts in 2007. But even if there’s an opportunity for Silverstein to sign a lucrative pro contract next year, he’ll be back at UVa in 2012, his father says.
“It’s time for him to give back to the University, give back for what they’ve done for him the last two years,” Steve Silverstein said. “And that’s an important concept that we learned from UVa and will be returned to UVa in the future.”
As a St. John’s star, Silverstein seriously considered such schools as Stanford, Rice and Vanderbilt before choosing UVa. He felt a special connection with the Virginia players and coaches, who Silverstein told his father were “good people.” Time has proven his son correct, the elder Silverstein believes.
“He could have gone anywhere,” Steve Silverstein said. “Thank God he went there.”