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Arizona baseball: Tyler Crawford ready to return to mound after missing better part of two years

It's been a long road back for the fifth-year senior

Jason Bartel

In 2012, the Arizona Wildcats rode five pitchers through Omaha and to a National Championship. They were: Kurt Heyer, James Farris, Konner Wade, Mathew Troupe, and Tyler Crawford.

Crawford is not only the lone guy remaining in Tucson of that group of five, he's the last guy left from that team at all.

It would have been Crawford and Troupe, but after Andy Lopez retired, Troupe decided to transfer closer to home and play his final season at Cal State Northridge.

"I guess I am old," Crawford joked about the moment he realized he was the last guy standing from 2012. "I've seen a lot in my five years here."

"I came here as a freshman, and I thought winning a National Championship was easy. I was like, oh okay, you just get a really good group of guys and it takes care of itself. But I've definitely learned a lot."

He's also the only player on the 2016 team that's ever played in the NCAA Tournament.

"The team likes to joke around that I've seen it all," continued Crawford. "I've won a National Title. I was on that horrible team that won like 21 games and everything in between."

We haven't seen much of Crawford the past two seasons. Last year, he missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. The year before that, he missed a good chunk of the season due to a severe case of gastritis.

"It was really tough," Crawford said of his 2015 experience. "I was in a weird situation where I wasn't necessarily around the team in the spring. I took what we call a JV roster spot to open up some room for some of these new guys that came in. So the rules said I couldn't practice with the team. Couldn't be at games. So it was a really tough process. It was extremely tough to watch."

He wasn't alone trying to get through the notorious TJ surgery though. Arizona had the "TJ Club", where Crawford, Troupe, Kaleb Roper and Luke Soroko were all there for each other.

"We still have it," Crawford joked. "Troupe's just not around, but now it's just me, Roper, Soroko and Trent Johnson. We're always doing our rehab and our strengthening stuff. It's fun. We challenge each other and it's good because in this process there's good days and there's not so good days. So we know someone not having such a good day. It's a good support system."

Crawford suffered the injury in August of 2014 as he was continuing to get ready for fall practices that year while recovering from the gastritis, that he got from a violent case of food poisoning. It ended up being three months where he wasn't able to keep food down, lost a ton of muscle and weight (30 pounds in two and a half weeks) in the process, and couldn't find any velocity when he would try to pitch.

"I just killed the team whenever I pitched that year," he reminisced.

The team and the trainers had trouble diagnosing it, and it took until later in the year to figure out what it was.

"I had to get an endoscopy, and that's how we diagnosed it," Crawford said. "I think the team was in Washington at the time. I didn't go. I stayed back and was hospitalized, and that's when they found it. The timetable for that is just rest. There's no secret. It was just a matter of taking time, and I still see some lingering effects that I see from it."

That stomach illness may have also led to him tearing the UCL, as it screwed with his entire body and how he threw a baseball.

"I was preparing to come back to school, I was just long-tossing. I threw a ball and I was like 'ooh something is weird'. And I don't know the exact reason, but I was recovering from that stomach thing, and I was very weakened, so I'm wondering if all that contributed. There's no way to know that for sure though."

Looking to finish his career strong

2016 is Crawford's final chance to prove that he can still get it done at the college level, and possibly find himself getting drafted by a Major League team.

But he's staying away from number goals for himself.

"I feel like I'm just going to help this team win games," Crawford said of his goals. "I feel like the role I'm going to take is going to be something similar to what I did in 2012, being the jack of all trades. Coming in when they need me. Start when they need me. Whatever they need, and I'm just looking to keep the team in games."

"I see him being very valuable with how we use pitching," coach Johnson added. "We can slot him in the game at the right time to eat up two or three innings, or just two or three hitters some weeks, and some weeks we may need him to start. But his experience will allow him to do that, and his assortment of pitchers makes him an ideal piece for how I like to use pitching."

When Jay Johnson was announced as Arizona's new head coach, Crawford had already known him, as Johnson recruited Crawford to play at the University of San Diego out of high school. USD never offered him a scholarship because of the depth they had at the time. That made Crawford lean towards Arizona, as it was more affordable for him to stay in-state.

Crawford's best friend at Sunrise Mountain, Austin Byler, played first base at Nevada under Johnson as well, so Crawford knew what he was getting himself into with coach Johnson.

That first meeting between the two at Arizona wasn't all pleasantries and nice to see yous though.

"When (Johnson) first came in, he said 'I'm going to be honest with you Tyler, I didn't even recognize you from when I recruited you five years ago'," Crawford said of that meeting. "You've put on a ton of weight. And that was huge for me. He basically just told me that you need to do a good job with your body if you want to come back and be successful."

"I took it to heart. I think I've lost 20 pounds since August. I feel great. I'm in great shape. I haven't had any setbacks or anything."

"A lot of the pitching staff, we needed to do a better job with their strength and conditioning standpoint, and as a few of 'em rolled into my office, I said 'hey, we have to transform this team in the weight room, particularly on the pitching side of it," Johnson added. "In particular when you look at (Crawford), (Nathan) Bannister, (Robby) Medel and a couple others have really taken that seriously."

Having Dave Lawn around as the new pitching coach has also helped finish off the recovery process, as Crawford has had an individualized plan suited to his needs.

"Tyler has really taken that seriously and is back into pitching shape if you will," continued Johnson.

"He's been full-go pretty much since we started back in October," coach Lawn added. "There's been no restrictions. He's had no complaints, and we really need him because he has a ton of experience."

"We want to get him in more games because he hasn't been in games for a while," Lawn continued. "He's the kind of guy too that if one day you said 'Hey man, we're going to start you because the matchup's good', he could go out there and give us six innings."

The rest of the team is looking forward to having Crawford take the mound for them again this year as well.

"It's awesome," Zach Gibbons said about having Crawford back around this year. "It's really cool. He's done a fantastic job pitching too. The ball's jumping out of his hand more, and he just looks a lot healthier and just a different baseball player."

And Crawford's helping out a guy who's very similar to him in pitching style, sophomore Cameron Ming.

"I like to pick his brain just because he's an older guy that's been there and done it," Ming said of their relationship. "Why not take advantage of his wisdom? I think we're a lot alike, and he's got a real bulldog mentality about him, and he's going to be really good for us this year."

"He wants my slider and I want his curveball," continued Ming. "That's the thing. We can't figure it out. He's got a pretty sweet curveball, and I've got a pretty good slider I like to think. So we're working on that, but yeah, we both have different parts of our game that we're both strong at so we like to compare ourselves to each other."

After the last two years, it'll be good to see Crawford out there in the middle innings again, hopefully setting down batters like he did in 2012 and 2013. If he's able to fill that middle relief role and do it effectively this year, there's a lot of potential for not only the pitching staff, but the entire team.