RINGGOLD, Ga. — There is a confidence within Matthew Crownover that belies his age, and as those in the know all agree, that belief in his abilities is and has been one of pitcher's greatest assets.
That confidence is a key reason why the former Ringgold High School and current Clemson University standout was able to go from having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2012 to being named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American 15 months later. For Crownover, you see, not making it back was never an option.
"Not getting to pitch for a year was a terrible feeling, and it really drove me to get back as soon as I could," he said. "I wrote down all my goals when I first got to Clemson, and one of my them was that by the mid-part of the season I would be a weekend [ACC] starter. I made that. I wanted to win anywhere from 7-10 games. I won seven and could have won 10. I think I did as good as I could have this year with what I was dealing with."
On a young Clemson team that started as many as six freshmen, the left-hander was among the brightest with a 7-3 record and a team-best 2.19 ERA along with 45 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 70 innings. In ACC games, he had a 3-2 record and a league-best 1.73 ERA.
Crownover's drive was one of the first things Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli noticed about his pitcher. It wouldn't be the last thing to stand out.
"He's really a special kid," Pepicelli said. "He put together a very strong year, and he pitched his best against good teams. The first thing you notice about his pitching is the command and that he can move his fastball to both sides of the plate. His changeup is good, but it will get better.
"And," Pepicelli noted, "he did all this pitching at about 75 percent of what he will be when his arm regains all of its strength. To have had the surgery and a year without pitching and to be as competitive as he was for us this year ... he did all that with the bare minimum of buildup for his arm."
Clemson coaches had a plan from the start -- prepared by the man who performed Crownover's surgery, Dr. James Andrews -- and never deviated. His first two starts were limited to 45 pitches. He then was stretched to 60 pitches twice, 75 pitches twice and was held to 90 the rest of the way.
"They were real good to me and made it clear from the start that they didn't want to do anything to hurt me or jeopardize my future," Crownover said. "They loved that I worked hard to get back to where I was, and they just wanted me to contribute. Most pitchers aren't back on the mound before 14 to 15 months and I was back in 11, so they were very careful with me."
That's not to say the season was without drama or concern. He experienced a dead arm period where he struggled to get his fastball much above 80 mph, but that soon went away. Now physically okay, Crownover had not overcome the mental hurdle all post-Tommy John pitchers have to conquer. He managed that with a little help.
"I had a start at Miami and I pitched okay, but I suffered my first loss," he said. "I wasn't really sharp, and the next Friday before I started against Georgia Tech he called me in the office and showed me a video of me pitching at East Cobb. My confidence just wasn't there.
"He told me, 'This guy pitching at 17 is the same guy pitching here, and now he's stronger. Just go out there and throw like you did before. Don't hold back.' After that I felt more natural, and I guess it took him to say something. I had to think I was plenty good enough to pitch at this level and I still was."
His father and veteran coach, David Crownover, immediately noticed the difference.
"That game was the first time he looked like he did in high school," he said. "He threw at a quick tempo and was in control. He was the same old Matthew after that."
A breakthrough ACC start against No. 1-ranked North Carolina was followed by two league wins against Boston College and Wake Forest, where he ran his scoreless streak to 25 innings and earned ACC Pitcher of the Week honors. At the end of the season, though, the year without pitching finally caught up to Crownover.
"I was running out of gas at the end of the year," he said. "Against Florida State my forearm was tightening up. It got progressively worse and after a few days rest I felt really good. Against Liberty [in an NCAA Regional] I felt good at the start, but we had a couple of very long innings and when I went back out I couldn't get loose and after the fifth pitch it tightened up again and I just ran out of gas."
Crownover will not touch a baseball for the next few weeks before embarking on what he believes will be an even better season personally and for the Tigers.
"We want to get back to Omaha, and there's no reason we can't with everybody we'll have back," he said. "For me, they say 18 months is usually the part where the ligament becomes strong, and hopefully I'll be back at full tilt next year with all the tricks in the bag."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...