IOWA CITY — Chris Whelan actually struck out.
It came late in Wednesday night’s game against Bradley at Duane Banks Field and with the bases loaded. The biggest significance wasn’t the squandered run opportunity, but that Whelan whiffed at all.
That was his first strikeout in 30-plus at-bats this season for the Iowa Hawkeyes, a tribute to his hitting prowess and ability to make contact. Not to mention, his ability to come back from injury.
The junior from the Chicago suburbs has been Iowa’s leadoff man the last eight games, returning to the lineup after dealing with dreaded Tommy John elbow surgery.
“I really didn’t have too high of expectations for myself, as far as personal performance,” said Whelan, whose team plays a three-game Big Ten Conference series Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Illinois. “I was just trying to get in there, work some counts, have some good at-bats, make the pitcher work a little bit. I was really just focusing on putting the ball in play and making the defense work. If that happens, hits fall when they do. So I’m happy with the way I’m swinging it, and I’m trying to build off this.”
Whelan is one of those rare position players to blow out his elbow. It happened last fall during Iowa’s scout day, a day when pro scouts can come and watch guys workout and practice.
He felt something was awry on his third throw from the outfield. It was nothing overly painful, just the feeling that something was different.
Doctors checked it out and confirmed the worst: a torn elbow ligament. Whelan underwent surgery Nov. 8 and began the arduous rehab process.
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A very tough break for a guy who was named the Most Outstanding Player at last year’s Big Ten tournament.
“I was more shocked than anything, just because I was a position player,” he said. “I pitched a little bit in high school, but I didn’t think it was enough to put the wear and tear on my arm that it apparently did.”
Whelan said he wasn’t allowed to start swinging a bat until about a month ago, which makes the success he is having at the plate since his return even more impressive. He goes into the weekend with a .412 average in eight games, a home run and RBI.
“It is pretty amazing that he was able to hit the ground running,” said Iowa Coach Rick Heller. “He got some hits right off the bat, and, as you know, confidence is such a big part of it ... The other thing is, too, he worked real hard. He didn’t take days off. He swung one-handed with his good hand, so he worked on his load, he worked on his legs. He was always doing something to prepare himself to be ready to go as quickly as possible.”
“Hitting was never something I had to work (on),” Whelan said. “I mean, obviously, I worked at it, but it was never something that felt unnatural to me. But after the surgery, that was something I really had to work on. Get my swing back, get back into a groove. It was like I had forgotten how to play baseball. But I’ve come back stronger, and I feel great.”
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