ORONO, Maine — A.J. Bazdanes is never at a loss for words.
He is a young man who exhibits high energy and intensity, especially on the baseball field.
This season, the University of Maine’s fifth-year senior has allowed his performance on the pitcher’s mound to do more of the talking.
The right-hander from Nashua, N.H., has worked his way back from a serious elbow injury that sidelined him during 2012 to become the No. 2 starter for the Black Bears.
“A.J. doesn’t like to lose. His [desire] to fight in competitive situations is second to none,” said UMaine head coach Steve Trimper.
Bazdanes is scheduled to take the hill for the second game of Saturday’s scheduled America East doubleheader against defending champion Stony Brook at Mahaney Diamond.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder sports a 4-3 record with a 3.55 earned run average. He has posted 37 strikeouts and 16 walks, holding opponents to a .234 batting average.
“It helps that it’s [the elbow] not sore throwing a curveball or a slider every time I pitch,” Bazdanes said.
UMaine pitching coach Jason Spaulding said Bazdanes’ bounce-back also is a tribute to his experience and his mental approach.
“A.J.’s really come a long way in terms of understanding how to get hitters out and how to approach the at-bats one at a time,” Spaulding said. “He’s done a good job of throwing strikes; his walks are way down.”
Bazdanes’ re-emergence has been built on two critical factors: good health and maturity.
He was dealing with soreness in his right elbow during his sophomore season in 2010, when he was 7-5 with a 5.05 ERA and 66 strikeouts in as many innings.
In 2011, he was 1-4 with a 4.66 ERA. The undiagnosed tear in his ulnar collateral ligament resulted in pain that occurred while pitching, and in the ensuing days Bazdanes thought it was normal.
“I grinded it out for the team and I didn’t pitch that great,” Bazdanes said.
In February 2012, during an indoor workout, the ligament snapped. A week later, Boston Red Sox surgeon Dr. Luke Oh performed an eight-hour procedure.
Bazdanes said Oh removed extensive scar tissue that resulted from his first undiagnosed ligament tear and then transplanted a tendon from his left hamstring into his right elbow to replace the ruptured UCL.
“It was very painful,” said Bazdanes, who for two weeks had to maintain his right arm above his head.
“I took two showers in 17 days,” he said, adding he was not kidding.
Bazdanes was laid up for three months but gradually returned to strength training and a throwing program. He credits Spaulding and UMaine athletic trainer Matt King for helping him make it through the rehabilitation.
“I had to dedicate. I had to put my time in,” he said.
“There’s a long, brutal process to getting back to be able to throw a baseball at maximum effort,” Spaulding said. “A.J. followed his program to a ‘T’ every single day.”
Along with the pain, there was the emotional strain of being unable to help his teammates. As a result, Bazdanes sat in the stands at home games.
“I didn’t want to sit in the dugout and be a distraction,” said Bazdanes, putting the emphasis on the team.
Once reaching 93-94 mph with his fastball and featuring a sharp overhand curve, Bazdanes often let his enthusiasm and desire to strike out opposing hitters dominate his mindset. His first realization coming off the surgery was that he could no longer throw as hard.
His fastball now tops out at 89 or 90 mph, but now that he’s healthy, Bazdanes can attack hitters with his repertoire.
“There’s no reason for me to try to go out and throw as hard now, because I’m throwing all my pitches comfortably without any pain,” he said. “I don’t need to be blowing it by guys.”
Bazdanes has learned to trust his defense and isn’t afraid to let opponents make contact. That approach has helped him average a career-low 2.5 walks per nine innings, including only two in his last 20 2/3 innings.
As a sophomore in 2010, he averaged 7.1 per nine innings pitched.
Bazdanes used to be vocal and demonstrative on the mound when an umpire’s call or a play didn’t go his way. Recently, he’s all business.
In his April 13 start at Maryland Baltimore County, UMaine committed three errors in one inning, including two on a single play that led to five runs, three of them unearned. Bazdanes’ ensuing pitch was a strike and he retired the next two batters.
“I still put up four zeroes in [the next] 4 1/3 [innings],” he said. “You’ve got to be able to shut the door after a [crappy] inning.”
Trimper said it’s only one example of Bazdanes’ continued growth.
“He’s become a more mature baseball player, a more mature person,” Trimper said. “I think that’s helped him on the mound to deal with adversity in the game.”
Bazdanes has not relinquished his competitive fire. Along with Mike Fransoso, he is one of only two seniors on the ballclub.
He refers to co-captains Fransoso and D.J. Voisine, a junior pitcher, as the team leaders. However, because of his desire for UMaine to win the league title, Bazdanes is not afraid to call out his teammates when he perceives their effort or attitude is lacking.
“I’m there to keep everybody in line, make sure I keep egos in check,” he said. “I [tick] guys off, there’s no question, but that’s my job. I’ve never been the nice guy.”
Bazdanes said he holds himself to an even higher standard, mostly because he has experienced his share of struggles.
“I might be loud and obnoxious, but I’m humble,” he said. “I’ll answer to all my mistakes. I’ve always been one to take responsibility.”
Bazdanes admits he had to grow up quickly after his father, Arthur Bazdanes, died when A.J. was a freshman in high school. It’s not something on which he has dwelled, but he said it helped make him tougher.
He appreciates Trimper having faith in him to improve his grades enough to get accepted at UMaine. He has a grade point average of between 2.8 and 2.9 and will graduate next month with a degree in Business Administration (management).
“It’s been a great fit,” Bazdanes said. “I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
All the physical challenges have helped transform him into a happier, more productive
“It has been a great pleasure watching him grow up,” Trimper said. “Being mature and being able to handle adversity can make you a complete person. I think that’s where A.J.’s grown up the most.”