Commentary

'Big Bird' making a big comeback for the Horns

Updated: February 29, 2008, 12:17 PM ET
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- The diagnosis was troubling, something that shook Kenn Kasparek's world like nothing else he had ever experienced during his short college career.

[+] EnlargeKenn Kasparek
UT Athletics PhotographyKenn Kasparek's return to the mound has exceeded his coaches' expectations.

But when several doctors told the Texas pitcher he needed Tommy John surgery early last spring to rebuild his damaged right elbow, it was hard for him not to feel a little jinxed.

"I felt like I was dreaming. … It was a nightmare the first time I heard it," Kasparek said. "I went back and got a second and third opinion and they all told me the same thing. I was a little frustrated by that."

After battling through the mental and physical challenges of the first major injury of his career, Kasparek has made a strong first step in his recovery with the Longhorns. In his first start in 19 months, Kasparek limited Virginia Commonwealth to an unearned run and two hits in a strong five-inning start Sunday.

His next step will come this weekend at the Minute Maid Classic in Houston, where he is the probable starter for the Longhorns against Rice in their Saturday night game in the six-team tournament.

Kasparek's overpowering size -- he's 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds in baseball cleats -- makes him the biggest college baseball player in the nation. But his successful comeback would trump that novelty.

The Longhorns again appear to be loaded with pitching, but Kasparek's return would provide another arm that would help them as they seek their first trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., since 2005. The Longhorns have been one of the top eight seeds in the past two seasons, but failed to advance out of a home regional each season.

Kasparek's fast start enthused Texas coach Augie Garrido, who had taken a pragmatic approach to Kasparek's return.

"I had hoped he would be one of our three starters, but I didn't know how long it would take him to regain his confidence after being out for so long," Garrido said. "He pitched today like he had many times before -- like a veteran. He gave us everything we wanted."

Kasparek was injured while pitching in the Texas Collegiate League for the McKinney Marshals in June 2006. A stinging, sharp pain and pop in his elbow surged through his body that was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

An MRI revealed a tear in the ligament in his right elbow, along with some damage to his forearm. The surgery was performed by Cincinnati Reds medical director Timothy Kremchek.

During his recovery, Kasparek remained close to his team. He watched almost every game last season, charting pitches from the stands along with several other injured teammates.

College baseball

The event formerly known as the Minute Maid Classic -- now the Houston College Classic -- used to be February's premier college baseball event. But the sport's new universal start date has resulted in an increase in top-25 tournaments. Baseball America breaks down what to watch, including the Urban Invitational, which will air on ESPN2. Weekend Preview

"It wasn't easy, because I've never missed an entire season before in any sport," Kasparek said. "It was really tough … watching everybody else succeed and do well. It was a little frustrating at times, because I thought if I hadn't had the surgery I could have been out there pitching."

Despite the injury, Kasparek was selected in the 34th round by the Washington Nationals in the 2007 amateur draft. He had been selected in the 41st round by the Chicago Cubs coming out of high school in 2004.

To get through his injury-enforced absence, he often daydreamed about previous performances and hoped to restage that success after his recovery.

"One of the most important things I've done is replay games in my head, whether they were in Omaha or a great performance I had in high school," Kasparek said. "You have to stay mentally tough."

His first start on Sunday was a continuation of that trend, punctuating the 67-pitch effort by retiring the last eight batters he faced.

"He was better than expected," Garrido said. "For being out that long, the consistency of his performance was terrific. He gave us everything we wanted."

Virginia Commonwealth coach Paul Keyes was impressed with Kasparek's strong finish after the slow start.

"He was a little rusty early, and then he got his fastball going," Keyes said. "He really got on a roll and we couldn't do much with him."

It's one of the reasons Kasparek continues to feel more comfortable as a starter after earlier experimentation at Texas as a closer.

[+] EnlargeAugie Garrido
AP Photo/Eric FrancisTexas' legendary coach, Augie Garrido, yet again fields a team with pitching depth.

He's the last remaining link on the roster to the Longhorns' 2005 national championship team. On that team, Kasparek had an 8-0 record and a 2.10 ERA, becoming the first freshman at Texas to win eight games since Kirk Dressendorfer in 1988. Kasparek followed that success with a 3-0 record and a 2.10 ERA in five postseason appearances.

Garrido tried to make him a closer the following season, and he struggled in the new role.

Kasparek finished with a 5-2 record and a 3.80 ERA that season, but said he was never really comfortable coming in from the bullpen.

"It all has to do with routine," Kasparek said. "I've always been a starter since I first picked up a baseball. It has never been an easy transition for me coming out of the bullpen. It always takes me awhile to get going."

Before the injury, Kasparek was known primarily for his size, which is more akin to a power forward than a power pitcher. It's also why he was christened with the nickname "Big Bird" by his Texas teammates.

But he was directed to baseball more than basketball while growing up in Weimar, a Class 2A baseball powerhouse located midway between Houston and San Antonio along Interstate 10. Kasparek led his high school to three trips to the state tournament and two championships.

"I played basketball for three years in high school, but it wasn't my thing," Kasparek said. "I played baseball all my life -- it was a sport I grew up with and is a big deal in my city. I was set up to play baseball."

His stature has made comparisons with Randy Johnson inevitable. But Garrido, who frequently watched Johnson at Southern California during his college career while coaching at Cal State-Fullerton, says there are few other common links.

"I saw Randy pitch at USC and I think that Kenn is a lot more even-keeled than Randy was at this point of their careers. He's a lot more consist in getting to his release point and getting the ball into the bottom part of the strike zone," Garrido said. "Randy was all over the place when he was in college. He was a physical monster, but would strike out 16 and then walk 14. The only thing they really have in common in their height."

That comparison pleases Kasparek, who is excited about pitching again after being idle for so long.

"It's a little weird being compared to a big leaguer and a future Hall of Famer like Randy Johnson," Kasparek said. "It's a little different because he throws from the left side and I throw from the right. I can't ever expect to be like him, but you take it as a compliment."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.

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