Senior first baseman Brad Wenzel leads the York College baseball team in batting average (.420), hits (50) and RBIs (36), and is second in runs scored (30), total bases (70) and on-base percentage (.459).
The numbers suggest it's been easy for Wenzel to live up to the typical expectations of a hard-hitting first baseman. If we were to judge the proverbial book by its cover, Wenzel might be pictured with a bat in his hand staring down a pitcher. Except it used to be the other way around for the 5-foot, 11-inch, 180-pounder from Berks County.
A pitcher most of his life, Wenzel first felt something pop in his left throwing elbow when pitching in a club game in the fall of 2009. It led to Tommy John surgery, performed by the Philadelphia Phillies' team physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti, and resulted in him missing his senior season for Fleetwood High School in spring 2010. It also put a question mark on his aspirations of pitching in college. A number of NCAA Division II and D-III baseball coaches were no longer interested in him.
"Once I got hurt they backed off and were like 'come talk to us in two years when you're healthy,'" Wenzel said last Wednesday when chatting after York's 7-6 victory over St. Mary's in the opening round of the Capital Athletic Conference Tournament.
Wenzel had a pair of hits in the win, like he had done so many other times this season for the Spartans, who are ranked No. 23 in the latest NCAA Division III rankings.
The Spartans were the top seed in the CAC Tournament, held over the weekend at York's Jaquet Field. They reached the third round of the double-elimination tourney but lost their next two games by a combined three runs. The Spartans (22-7) still have another three weeks of regular-season, non-conference games left, with the hopes of padding their overall record to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA D-III tournament.
Getting to York: Following graduation from Fleetwood in 2010, Wenzel lived at home and commuted to Kutztown University for classes the next two school years.
"I went to Kutztown so I could do the rehab (from Tommy John surgery) close to home," he said. "And then after high school all my friends went off to college. I was home pretty much by myself commuting. It was definitely a rough year-and-a-half to two years there. There were plenty of times where I thought about giving up on it."
Recovered from surgery, Wenzel invited Spartans' coach Mike Scappa to come watch him pitch in a men's twilight league game in the summer of 2012. Scappa liked what he saw and asked Wenzel to come play for him, only to have the left-hander suffer another devastating injury.
Wenzel cruised through his second start of last season for York at Salisbury, giving up just two runs in eight innings. The performance improved his ERA to 1.80 on the season, having allowed just four runs in 20 total innings over three appearances (two starts). But something didn't feel right in his left shoulder following the game at Salisbury.
Wenzel tried pitching three more times over the next six weeks, but got clobbered each time. He soon discovered he had a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder and was faced with another tough decision after the 2013 season.
"I had just come back from Tommy John surgery. If I would've had the surgery (to repair the torn labrum) I would've had to go through an eight-month rehab," Wenzel said. "And it's arm surgery so who knows if I'll ever be able to pitch again? So I talked to Scap' (Coach Scappa) and we decided it's best I come back as a first baseman."
Batters up: Wenzel gave up pitching and got his shoulder healthy enough for this season, to the point where he could play the field and swing a bat. A solid hitter in high school, Wenzel credits offseason work with his dad and younger brother for getting his hitting form back up to par.
An accounting major in his senior year academically, Wenzel would have two more years of athletic eligibility remaining after this season. He instead wants to graduate and enter the workforce later this year. First, however, he wants to put a cap on a monster year at the plate.
"Just speaking for the seniors, it's their last year and they've been here for three years and haven't been as successful as they've wanted to be," Wenzel said. "We kind of just sat down (last year) and talked about it. We just decided we were gonna give it all we had for our last season. Just try to make a run at it. They picked us to finish sixth (in the conference) at the start of the year. We looked at that and we knew we were a lot better than that."
— Reach John Walk at firstname.lastname@example.org.