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Support from coaches, teammates has helped Arizona’s Tony Bullard heal

arizona-wildcats-tony-bullard-baseball-shoulder-kim-father-death-covid-2022-injury-pac12-usc Arizona Athletics

All signs pointed toward 2022 being a huge year for Tony Bullard. Instead it’s been one marked by physical trauma and personal tragedy.

Less than a week before Arizona was set to open the season at a tournament in Texas, Bullard injured his right shoulder diving for a ball in an intrasquad game. Diagnosed with a strained capsule, the junior third baseman missed those three games at Globe Life Field and seven more before slowly getting eased back into action.

The injury came less than a month after Bullard lost his father, Kim, who passed away Jan. 22 at the age of 64.

Bullard found himself dealing with the frustration of not being able to play while still coming to terms with the loss of one of his biggest supporters. It created a devastating scenario that would have made it easy to give up on baseball.

Yet two months later, Bullard heads back to his Los Angeles-area roots this weekend—Arizona visits USC in a 3-game series beginning Friday night—as focused as ever.

“I always want to just keep going, no matter what, because I know that’s what my father would want me to do,” Bullard said Wednesday, unconsciously touching a blue bracelet on his left wrist.

The bracelet, made by teammate (and roommate) Tyler Casagrande, says “In Loving Memory” and has been worn for every game he’s played this season.

“It helps out a lot, just knowing that I have all these guys who have my back no matter what I’m going through,” Bullard said. “That’s all I could really ask for.”

It was around this time last season that Bullard seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of Arizona’s top hitters, and by far its most potent. With nine games left in the regular season, Bullard was batting .224 with no home runs and nine RBI, but went 2 for 3 with two RBI in a win over Washington and followed that up with his first homer of the season the next afternoon.

Two weeks later, in the final regular season series, Bullard went 6 for 12 and had a 2-homer game. A week later in the NCAA regionals he was 7 of 12 with two more homers, and in Game 1 of the Super Regionals against Ole Miss he had three hits including two more bombs.

That was “Playoff Tony,” what UA catcher Daniel Susac called the Bullard that finished 2021 going 25 of 65 (.385) over the final 17 games with seven homers, three two doubles, two triples and 21 RBI. And after Bullard went 3 for 4 with two RBI in Tuesday’s home loss to Grand Canyon, Susac thinks that same version of Bullard might be coming back.

“I thought he had some great at-bats, even the at-bat he got out on was a good at-bat,” Susac said. “Maybe we’ll get another playoff Tony push again.”

The 3 for 4 night on Tuesday raised Bullard’s 2022 average to .214, the highest it’s been all season. He has four homers and 10 RBI but has also struck out 27 times in 117 plate appearances as he’s tried to rediscover his swing.

It helps that another of his roommates, Mac Bingham, also recently dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him out of fall practice and led to a slow start to the 2022 season. The two are able to compare notes on both the physical and mental aspects of getting back up to speed.

“I know exactly how Tony is feeling,” Bingham said last weekend. “He’s breaking out of it. He’s starting to hit balls hard and everything. Tony is gonna start to boom really soon.”

Bullard said he’s as close to 100 percent as he’s been all season, though he still deals with some pain. Less so at the plate than when throwing from third, as he’s had to adjust his throwing motion to a more overhand approach. He has committed six errors, only two less than in 2021 when he became the everyday third baseman in mid-March. His first start in the field this season didn’t come until March 29.

“I’ve changed pretty much my mechanics for throwing just so that it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “But I realized I’d rather throw the ball harder and have a little pain and make a good throw then in with my arm and make a bad throw.”

UA coach Chip Hale has been amazed at how composed Bullard has been this season, considering what he’s dealt with. Hale said being Bullard’s coach has been a unique experience for him.

“It’s as hard a situation as I’ve ever coached, whether as a manager in the big leagues, a manager in the minor leagues, or just a coach in the big leagues,” Hale said in early April, two days after Bullard had a 2-homer game at ASU. “I’ve never been around a player that’s had to endure so many issues in one year in a short time. And it gets to him, we see it. It gets to him every now and again. But we try to talk to him as a staff and stay close to him. But I think there’s things that get to him and I think the injury was just the topper for him because baseball was sort of his outlet and now he couldn’t get out there and play and he still feels like he’s limited. ... So he’s still feeling his way through it.”

Bullard gives a lot of credit to his resurgence to the support he’s gotten from Hale, the rest of the coaching staff and his teammates and roommates, the third of which is veteran outfielder Blake Paugh.

“They understood what I was going through and they were behind my back all throughout the beginning of the year when things weren’t going that great,” he said.

A native of Riverside, Calif., Bullard said he’ll have a large cheering section for the USC games. They’ll all try to help fill the void left by Kim Bullard, whom Tony said was a lifelong smoker whose emphysema was exacerbated after contracting COVID-19.

Theirs was a “really good” relationship, Bullard said, though it took him a while to understand that.

“Growing up, he was very hard on me,” Bullard said. “I always thought he was kind of like rude growing up, because he was always so hard. But now I realized it was to make me better.”

The ingredients are all there for Bullard to have a big weekend, and with Arizona in the thick of the Pac-12 race there would be no better time for the SoCal kid to have a breakout performance back home.

“I feel like (Tuesday) was the biggest day where I felt as comfortable as I was last year, just seeing the ball and being on time,” he said. “I just want to win some games and hopefully we can make a good playoff run like we did last year.”