By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Never mind the record (2-5) or the earned-run average (4.48) he posted in 2012 for the University of Virginia baseball team.
“I know the numbers might not show it,” Scott Silverstein said, “but last season was unbelievable for me.”
In 2012, the 6-6, 250-pound left-hander pitched regularly for the first time since `07, when as a junior at St. John’s College High School in D.C. he established himself as one of the nation’s premier prospects.
Silverstein, who’s from Brookeville, Md., started a game in each of Virginia’s 10 ACC series last season and one in the conference tournament.
“Pitching every weekend,” he said, “the experience was invaluable. This is totally different than it was in high school, because now you’re going against North Carolina and Georgia Tech every weekend, instead of a bunch of high school kids. It was great to learn what it’s going to take moving forward to succeed.”
UVa’s 2013 roster includes two fifth-year seniors: first baseman Jared King and Silverstein. King missed the 2010 season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Silverstein knows all too well what King went through.
Early in his senior season at St. John’s, Silverstein experienced sharp pain in his throwing shoulder. He wasn’t allowed to pitch that spring, and his stock as a pro prospect dipped dramatically.
In June 2008, about a week after the Washington Nationals selected him in the 32nd round, Silverstein underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He enrolled at UVa later that summer, but he was not cleared to pitch as a freshman. His 19 appearances in 2009 came as a first baseman, designated hitter or pinch hitter.
When it became clear his shoulder was not healing well, Silverstein returned to the operating room in October 2009. His surgeon this time was the renowned Dr. James Andrews. His second rehabilitation went well, but Silverstein had to redshirt in 2010. He was cleared to pitch in 2011 but threw only 14.1 innings that season, all but three in relief.
UVa coach Brian O’Connor was not surprised, then, that Silverstein battled inconsistency as the 2012 season progressed. Silverstein earned his second victory March 23, against Clemson, but never got a third win.
“A lot of people wanted to make a lot about how in the back half of the year he kind of struggled,” said O’Connor, who pitched at Creighton. “He’d go out there and start games, but he had a tough time getting through the middle part of the game. People were looking for answers, and, quite frankly, I felt the answer was simple: It’s been four years, five years really since the guy had had to pitch a season.
“He pitched well in the first half last year, but he’s never had to start one game a week, for 15 straight weeks, ever in his life. So there’s mental fatigue, there’s physical fatigue, things like that, and that’s why I really believe that he’s going to be stronger and better this year, because now he’s had one year of experiencing an entire season.”
UVa, which finished 38-17-1 in 2012, opens the new season with a three-game series at East Carolina, starting Feb. 15. As the opener approaches, candidates for the weekend starting slots, O’Connor said, include Silverstein, sophomore Nick Howard (another St. John’s graduate) and freshmen Nathan Kirby, Trey Oest and Brandon Waddell.
Whether it’s in weekend or midweek games, the Wahoos need Silverstein “to give us good, consistent starts,” O’Connor said. “That doesn’t mean that he needs to go out there and give us seven or eight innings every time and throw a one-run game. He just needs to give us a quality start and give us a chance to win.”
“Even in the back half of the year last year, when he was struggling a little bit, he was still giving us a chance to win, he was still keeping us in the ball game. If he can improve on that from last year, then that’s going to be a big boost for us.”
His left arm feels strong, Silverstein said, but that was true last season too.
“I don’t think it was so much physical,” he said of his late-season decline. “I think it was more mental. The season was a grind. I’d been through it three times [at UVa], but I’d never been through it like that.
“To be thrown into it was a great opportunity for me to learn what it’s going to take, not only physically but mentally. It was just sort of not knowing how to bounce back. I had dealt with failure with injury, but dealing with failure within the sport was something new to me. Which sounds weird as a senior in college, but when you haven’t [pitched regularly] since your junior year in high school, it’s a reminder.”
O’Connor said: “You can look at last year and say, hey, you know what? Maybe it’s a blessing. He went through it last year, and hopefully he’ll be better this year because of it.”
UVa’s pitching coach, Karl Kuhn, said Silverstein “had a trial run last year where he got to compete again, and he got to compete at a high level, and he had to be counted on by his teammates. I think it’s a great story. There’s nobody that works any harder than Scott Silverstein on our team.”
As Silverstein heads into his final college season, “I just think there’s a little bit of a calmness about him,” Kuhn said, “like he’s saying, `Hey, I understand it now. I get it. I’ve been there.’ I think he’s approaching it mentally differently than he has in the past. I think he’s more equipped to handle adversity, and I think he’s ready to go.”
In the early stages of his comeback, Silverstein acknowledged, he worried about re-injuring his shoulder when he pitched. Advice from a former Atlanta Braves closer who has a farm in Crozet helped Silverstein clear that mental hurdle.
“Believe it or not, I talked to Billy Wagner about it, and he said, `There comes a point where you really have nothing to lose, and you might as well throw it as hard as you can,’ ” Silverstein recalled.
After graduating last year with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, Silverstein could have left the University to pursue his goal of playing pro career. He chose instead to return for his final season and enrolled in a one-year master’s program in the Curry School of Education.
He’ll turn 23 in May, which makes him considerably older than most of his teammates. Moreover, many of Virginia’s best players in recent years, including four (John Hicks, Danny Hultzen, Steven Proscia and Will Roberts) who came in with Silverstein in 2008, have turned pro after their junior seasons.
“It’s strange, because the guys who leave come back, and I see them in the locker room and it brings me back two or three years,” Silverstein said, “and I’m thinking, `I’m still here.’ But you could either look at it as me being jealous of them or they being jealous of me. What we have here is pretty special. Sure, pro ball’s awesome, but you might as well live this as long as you can.”
O’Connor said: “I’m glad that he made the decision to come back this year. I just have a feeling from him that he feels like he’s got some unfinished business.”