Chad Hegdahl warms up during a Southern Oregon RiverDogs practice on Wednesday. - Jamie Lusch

Back where he belongs

Pain had always been a constant in the baseball life of Chad Hegdahl.

When you're a left-handed pitcher who relies on a changeup and curveball to make your fastball appear more than ordinary, you're bound to feel some pain over the course of a game due to the added stress on your arm.

Hegdahl began noticing discomfort in his left arm during the games he pitched and over the days that followed when he was a junior at Ashland High School.

He wrote the pain off as the type all pitchers must endure and went about his business.

As a senior, the discomfort grew so great that then-coach Jason Robustelli didn't allow Hegdahl to pitch in practice at all. The coach even went so far as to not have Hegdahl take the usual infield-outfield practice when he was stationed at first base.

"I knew then that there was probably something wrong," Hegdahl recalls, "but I didn't know the full extent of it."

The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder took the summer of 2004 off from pitching for the Medford Mustangs, but still remained involved as a first baseman. The rest, he hoped, would have him ready to pitch the next season at Feather River Community College.

Unfortunately, the pain never really subsided and Hegdahl battled his way through a freshman campaign that included a 5-2 record, a 3.78 ERA and many sleepless nights.

"It was bad," he says. "It was to the point that even between innings my arm was shaking. I couldn't even lift it sometimes. It was just a real sharp pain every time I threw the ball.

"I'd ice it down and wake up in the middle of the night after rolling on it wrong and my arm would be throbbing," adds Hegdahl. "It just wasn't fun, it wasn't fun at all."

But ever the competitor, Hegdahl once again returned to the Rogue Valley for a summer at first base for the Mustangs. When not on the field, he spent the better part of the 2005 break doing intense physical therapy in hopes that he could strengthen and loosen up his arm enough to get back to where he was as a Grizzly sophomore.

All of that work went for naught, however, when Hegdahl returned to Feather River and the pain lingered. He returned home around September 2005 for an MRI on his elbow that didn't show a tear but revealed enough cause for concern that Ashland orthopedic surgeon Hal Townsend recommended Hegdahl see a specialist in San Francisco.

"My dad and I drove down there and it took about a minute and she said, 'Yep, you've got it,'" says the 21-year-old.

The "it" was an irregularity with Hegdahl's ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his left elbow.

The solution: Tommy John surgery.

The idea of such a surgery used to send chills down the spine of pitchers everywhere, but the stigma has waned over the years as more and more athletes have had the surgery and come back better than before.

"I was honestly relieved that they actually found something, that it wasn't in my mind or I was making something up," Hegdahl says of first hearing about needing Tommy John surgery.

That relief led to surgery by Dr. Townsend in December 2005, but not in the typical fashion for Tommy John surgeries. Typically the torn UCL is removed and a piece of tendon is cut from a hamstring or forearm to be used as a replacement. After holes are drilled in the elbow, that transplanted tended is weaved through the holes as a replacement ligament.

Since Hegdahl's UCL was not torn — instead it was stretched about four times beyond its workable range — the ligament was simply folded over and sewn up to tighten the UCL. A tendon from Hegdahl's forearm was brought in as well and woven through the elbow to make one large ligament fused together.

The surgery by Dr. Townsend, who served as a team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Rams during the 1980s, didn't scare off Oregon State University from offering Hegdahl a chance to pitch for the Beavers in 2006.

Realizing the southpaw would need extensive rehabilitation, Oregon State coaches put Hegdahl on a limited schedule and slowly brought him along. His first bullpen session at OSU was in January of this year, and involved throwing about 10-15 fastballs at the Beavers' indoor complex.

"I would say that was a little more nerve-wracking than anything," says Hegdahl. "At that time I didn't know what was going to happen and didn't want to hear a pop or something."

That pop he did hear, however, involved his fastball hitting the mitt at a faster rate than ever before.

"I was pretty excited about that," says Hegdahl. "I'm still a soft-throwing lefty, but a couple miles per hour doesn't hurt a bit."

The grin on his face was mirrored by that of OSU pitching coach Dan Spencer, and led to Hegdahl eventually throwing anywhere from 35 to 50 pitches per session. About two weeks in, Hegdahl began testing out his bread-and-butter changeup. About six weeks later, a knuckle curveball came into play because Hegdahl didn't feel comfortable with his previous grip on the breaking pitch.

"It doesn't hurt at all throwing it," Hegdahl says of the curve, "but I'm hesitant in throwing it hard. I don't know what it is, but hopefully I can get it squared away before I get back (to OSU) in the fall."

Through all his progressions, Hegdahl was asked by OSU head coach Pat Casey to throw occasional batting practice for the defending champion Beavers. A highlight to the spring came when Hegdahl went in the batting cage to pitch a simulated inning against the likes of Jason Ogata and Mitch Canham, and he struck out the side.

"It was pretty exciting to get in with those guys," says Hegdahl. "Overall the coaches and everybody were real supportive of me and looking out for me during the season."

Hegdahl thought he might have secured a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the recent College World Series as a batting practice pitcher but a week before the Beavers headed east, Casey said the lefty wouldn't be needed.

"I watched all the games and was excited for them," Hegdahl says of seeing OSU win its second straight title. "I get the ring, so I'm pretty excited for that, too."

That excitement should spill over to another prosperous season in 2008, with Hegdahl saying the coaches expect to see him in the pitching rotation next season. Whether that be as a starter or reliever is to be determined, but Hegdahl says he'll be happy either way.

"I'll probably get a good idea toward the end of the fall what their game plan is for me," he says. "I'm just going to go out this summer and throw and get some innings in and get ready for whatever. Hopefully we can give it another run next year."

Hegdahl's already off to a good start, pitching four effective innings in his first start in two years during a 3-1 win by the Southern Oregon RiverDogs over the Pacific Javelinas. Hegdahl allowed three hits with a strikeout and hit a batter in his first live action since May 2005.

"Definitely I was nervous," Hegdahl says of returning to the mound. "I wasn't nervous about my arm, if it was hurt or not or how it would feel, but just competing against actual batters was definitely nerve-wracking. It had been a while."

The four-inning stint proved pain free, and the days that followed involved recovering from the kind of soreness and stiffness standard for any workout.

"I love pitching," Hegdahl says of the experience. "It was just how I remembered."

It also provided a perfect reminder of why he put himself through so many months of rehabilitation.

"It takes a lot of dedication to sit out two years and go through all the rehab I went through," he says, "but if you love the game, you've got to do what you can to get back into it. And I love the game."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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