As Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn” resonates throughout Cicerone Field, redshirt senior Kyle Necke charges in from the bullpen. Taking the ball from his skipper as the tension builds, Necke toes the rubber knowing that the tight ballgame is in his hands. Head Coach Mike Gillespie could’ve placed the burden on fellow senior closer Eric Pettis or on a number of other arms in the bullpen, but he selected the 6’2”, 240-lb stopper with a gnarly scar on his right pitching elbow.
Necke takes the sign from senior catcher Francis Larson, as his impending graduation, the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, the job market for sociology majors or the Tommy John surgery that left a permanent indentation on his elbow could be on his mind. Instead, Necke rotates the seams in his fingers, starts his windup and fires a cut-fastball. His only concern: locking down another Anteater victory.
On a UCI pitching staff composed of players who make scouts drool, Necke often flies under the radar. In 41 innings pitched this season, he has a losing record at 1-4, a mediocre ERA of 4.61 and has fanned 41 opposing hitters. Necke’s statistics may not inspire the average fan, but his ability to overcome adversity should. As the end of his college baseball career draws near, he’s fortunate for the three seasons that he nearly lost to a severe elbow injury.
On Feb. 4, 2006, Necke made his first appearance as an ’Eater against the California Golden Bears. He threw three pitches. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three. Ballgame. UCI won 10-4 as Necke locked down the final out of the game with a strikeout. It was a brief start to what could’ve been a brief collegiate career.
As a true freshman in his 2006 season, Necke went 1-1 on the hill with a 2.49 ERA in 25.1 innings pitched. The reliever’s astounding freshman season featured flashes of brilliance, but came with a price.
“The summer after my first year, I started to develop some pain in my right elbow and I couldn’t throw,” Necke said. “I needed Tommy John surgery after my senior year of high school, but never had it taken care of.”
Chronic arm pain in the summer of 2006 led Necke to seek an expert’s opinion. An evaluation by world-renown surgeon, Dr. James R. Andrews, revealed that Necke’s plans would be altered.
Dr. Andrews found a significant tear in Necke’s elbow that required Tommy John surgery. The operation halted his UCI baseball career and forced him to redshirt his sophomore season.
Necke’s Tommy John surgery, also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, is a surgical procedure in which a ligament in his medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from his forearm. The procedure is common amongst baseball pitchers, with a list of notable names such as Eric Gagne, Tim Hudson and Tommy John, who received the first successful UCL reconstruction and inspired the name of the surgery.
Necke was in good hands. Dr. Andrews has performed surgeries on stars such as Tom Brady, Albert Pujols and Donovan McNabb, who Necke mentioned had a successful knee surgery performed by Dr. Andrews on the same day that the Anteater pitcher had Tommy John surgery.
Months went by as Necke went to rehab for three to four days a week. Without a definite timetable on his return, Necke had to wait six months before he could toss a ball, an eternity for a ballplayer.
“I couldn’t do anything for the first six to eight weeks,” Necke said. “I wasn’t even allowed to run.”
While Necke worked to regain strength and flexibility in his arm, his teammates qualified for the 2007 College World Series. Missing a chance to play in Omaha both disappointed and motivated him to someday return to form on the mound.
Necke’s road to recovery was not easy and his teammates took note of his passion for the game.
“Kyle is never satisfied with himself,” Necke’s roommate Daniel Bibona said. “He’s a hard working guy, and that helps him improve and continue to become a better pitcher.”
Necke returned to the mound in 2008 as a redshirt sophomore, equipped with a scar across his elbow to show for his ordeal.
In a rocky season, Necke posted a 1-0 record, threw 19 innings and recorded a bloated 7.58 ERA.
Necke recorded an 11.57 ERA in his first five outings of the 2009 season. His struggles on the mound continued as it appeared that he was nowhere close to the pitcher he once was as a freshman.
Despite poor production from his reliever, Gillespie kept his faith in Necke and continued to hand him appearances to work the kinks out.
Gillespie’s steadfast support paid off when a simple bullpen session with pitching coach Ted Silva turned into a breakthrough for Necke last spring. The result: a new pitch.
“Ted Silva introduced the cutter to me,” Necke said. “I made a few adjustments and started throwing it one day. And it was good.”
The pitch had an immediate impact. On May 16, 2009, Necke dominated UCLA. He recorded eight strikeouts in 4.1 innings en route to gaining his lone victory of the season.
“The cutter has made him a new pitcher,” Bibona said. “It will make him successful at the next level.”
Witnessing the resurrection of Necke’s success last season inspired Gillespie to term his cutter as “unhittable” and he spoke volumes about the difference he saw in his pitcher’s confidence.
Necke dramatically lowered his 11.57 ERA by the end of the season to 4.50, striking out 29 batters in 34 innings of work throughout his junior season.
This season, Necke’s resurgence has added depth to the Anteater staff. He has locked down seven saves in his shared closer role with Pettis, pitched long relief in extra inning games and has even started two contests.
As June’s MLB draft approaches, Necke likes his chances of being selected.
“I hope I get drafted, but it’s tough to get my hopes up,” Necke said.
If his professional baseball career is not meant to be, Necke would like to pursue a master’s degree in public administration and get into law enforcement.
Whether Necke gets the call from a big league ballclub or not, he’s fortunate for the opportunity to return to form as an Anteater and to spend five years at UCI.
“I love UCI and the team,” Necke said with a smile. “And I live in Newport Beach. How many chances do you get in life to live on the beach?”
Necke won’t let draft talk interfere with the goals his teammates have set for themselves, especially with the postseason fast approaching.
“This team has a real good chance to make it to Omaha,” Necke said. “We haven’t had the year we hoped for, but things are starting to come into place. This team can make a run.”