Thursday was a significant day for right-handed pitcher Taylor Clarke. He started and won for second-seeded College of Charleston in its Colonial Athletic Association tournament opener against third-seeded North Carolina Wilmington, the host school. There’s another day he won’t forget, though — Jan. 17, 2013.
On that day, Clarke’s baseball future was in doubt after he underwent Tommy John surgery for a significant partial tear of his right ulnar collateral ligament.
“That date resonates,” said Clarke, a standout at Broad Run High School who was at Towson University at the time. “When it’s almost the 17th every month, I count it as a benchmark.”
Before Clarke could get through a grueling five-month stretch of rehab, his college career took another unwanted turn. In early March of last year, when he already was rehabbing five days a week for two-hour stretches, Clarke learned Towson was planning to cut its baseball program.
The 2013 season would have been the Tigers’ last, but Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley stepped in to grant funds to keep the program alive. But by the time Towson made an improbable run to the CAA tournament title and the NCAA tournament that summer, Clarke already knew he was transferring.
“Seeing them win it and not being able to play was tough to watch,” Clarke said. “It gave me more inspiration to get back out there and just show everyone I could come back from it.”
Clarke had joined the Tigers after leading Broad Run to district and regional titles and the second round of the Virginia AA tournament in his senior year. He garnered first team all-state and second-team All-Met honors .
But with the Tigers seemingly on the edge of extinction in the spring of 2013, Towson Coach Mike Gottlieb sent an e-mail to every Division I coach saying his players would be released from their scholarships and were free to transfer.
Clarke visited the College of Charleston while the Towson program was in limbo, and he committed days after his late March visit.
“I thought it would be in my best interest for myself to move forward because my baseball future was in the air,” Clarke said.
College of Charleston Coach Monte Lee was well aware of Clarke’s Tommy John surgery, but after talking to Broad Run Coach Patrick Cassidy and Gottlieb, he felt comfortable bringing Clarke into his program.
“I felt like I had done my homework talking to his former coaches,” Lee said. “He has good character and background, so I knew he would do fine here. The biggest thing I learned was his work ethic.”
That decision has paid off for the Cougars, who entered the postseason with Clarke as their ace. He persevered for seven innings Thursday, allowing four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out seven in a 7-4 victory.
In the regular season, the sophomore tied for first in the CAA in wins after going 9-3 and ranked fourth in ERA (2.44) and fourth in strikeouts (79) in a team-high 842 / 3 innings. In his final outing before the conference tournament, he allowed only one run in seven innings in Charleston’s 3-2, 23-inning win over regular season champion William and Mary.
A healthy season has been a welcome sight for Clarke after an up-and-down freshman year with Towson. Clarke went 1-4 with a 3.88 ERA in 461 / 3 innings in his lone season with the Tigers, and in March 2012 he began to feel stiffness in his right arm. He visited a doctor, and then he and the coaching staff decided to shut him down for the season in April.
He felt the same stiffness in the fall, and an MRI exam showed the UCL tear. The surgery was performed at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore by Daryl Osbahr, a pupil of James Andrews.
After playing the game year-round since he was 6 years old, Clarke didn’t touch a baseball for more than four months. He enrolled at the College of Charleston last fall, where he continued his rehab. Clarke stepped on the mound again during fall play, but inflammation in his arm stymied his return.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions,” Clarke said. “But Doctor Osbahr told me not to get discouraged.”
In November, his fastball velocity increased, and there were no signs of inflammation. But the command on his slider and change-up was not there.
Clarke finally felt 100 percent healthy in January, and he started the Cougars’ second game of the season Feb. 16 against then-No. 12 North Carolina . In five innings, he struck out three batters and allowed four runs (two earned) on six hits and three walks in a 12-3 loss.
During the season, Clarke’s fastball has jumped from 91 mph to 93 mph, and his command on his off-speed pitches returned.
“My play has been from all the hard work and rehab,” said Clarke, who earned second-team all-CAA honors. “It’s finally paying off and coming together.”
Resigned to being a spectator during Towson’s postseason run a year ago, Clarke is now on the front line for a Cougars team looking to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.
“Anything can happen in the playoffs,” Clarke said, “and I think we have deep enough pitching to make a deep run.”