SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - From two-out uprisings to late-inning comebacks, baseball naturally produces plenty of dramatic opportunities to recover from early setbacks.
Jacob Toney's recovery from shattering the knuckle in his left (throwing) hand is only the latest in a list of obstacles the South Pittsburg junior has overcome to return to the form that made him the state's top-rated prospect, according to several scouting services.
Toney returned to the mound Monday after missing more than four weeks with the hand injury, and he looked sharp in two innings against Central. He is expected to rejoin the rotation for the District 6-A tournament, which begins today when the top-seeded Pirates (28-2, 10-0) host Van Buren County.
Toney also missed part of last year's baseball season and all of the basketball season while recovering from three knee surgeries, but the one scar that never will heal also is his biggest inspiration. His father, Tommy, died when 12-year-old Jacob was out of town in a youth-league tournament. The two were so close that for nearly six months after his father's death, Jacob suffered from stress-induced seizures.
"That was terrifying, to be honest, because I didn't know what was wrong with me," Toney said. "A neurologist ran all kinds of tests and they finally determined that it was just my reaction to my dad dying. I took medication, and after a few months the seizures stopped.
"My dad taught me everything about the game. He would take me to the field to pitch or field or to the batting cage to hit. He was always teaching me about my mechanics, and even when we went to just watch a game, he was giving me pointers. I would go to every game he umpired and just watch the players.
"I was trying to learn as much as I could from him and other people he was around, because I felt like I had to get better every day. Whenever I would get frustrated I used to look over at him, and he would put his hand out and remind me to just calm down. I still think of that when I'm having a tough time. I can still hear him and see him telling me to just relax and throw."
Five years after his father's death, Jacob now has a small tattoo on his chest, with the signature "Thomas D. Toney" over his heart. Toney also pauses before each game he pitches to scribble his dad's initials in the dirt behind the mound.
Projected to grow at least another two inches, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Toney throws a two-seam and four-seam fastball, cutter, curve, slider and two different changeups. His fastball has been clocked consistently at 88 mph, and in his first game this season, he pitched a no-hitter. Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are actively recruiting him or have scouted him in person.
He was 3-0, striking out 26 of the 48 batters he faced before the hand injury. He also was batting .543 with 11 extra-base hits as the team's cleanup hitter.
In his absence, the Pirates went 17-1, mostly riding the left arm of senior Hunter Giles (7-0 with a 0.83 ERA), who has pitched complete games in all seven starts, including five shutouts.
"Hunter has just been tremendous for us," Pirates coach Wesley Stone said. "We felt like we had two No. 1 pitchers coming into the year, and that's about right. Now having Jacob back just really gives the whole team more confidence. It's a comfort zone for our kids whenever Jacob or Hunter are pitching, that they just believe we're going to win automatically."
The Pirates are just three wins from setting a school record and have recorded 14 of their 28 victories by the state's 10-run mercy rule. But while South Pittsburg batters have struck out just 83 times in 886 plate appearances, pitching depth has been the key to their success. The team ERA is 1.74 with 11 shutouts, and their opponents' batting average is .172.
"We put the ball in play and have some speed on offense, but pitching has carried us," Stone said. "And pitching will determine how far we go in the playoffs now.
"We already had pretty good pitching depth, with five of six guys we felt confident with, but having Jacob back gives us another dimension because he's a guy who can be dominant when he's on. We're going into the postseason and now have our most talented player back, and he feels like he's got something to prove again. That's pretty exciting for us."