Three Times the Arm
Originally posted December 12, 2018 on KVSC.org
A little less than nine months ago, St. Cloud State righthanded pitcher Nathan Strobel thought his baseball career was finished.
The fifth-year junior had exited his outing on March 30th at the University of Sioux Falls after feeling a sharp pain in his throwing arm as he delivered a pitch. As soon as the ball left his hand, he buckled over, dropped his glove, shouted for his pitching coach and began walking towards his dugout. A whirlwind of emotions ensued, as Strobel feared the worst: a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), an injury that had robbed him of nearly two seasons earlier in his career.
The injury gave Strobel a chance to reflect on his playing career, perhaps for a final time.
Of the 16 seniors on the 2019 St. Cloud State Baseball roster, Nathan Strobel has the distinction of being the “most senior,” as he’ll be turning 24 in May. A 2013 graduate of Republic High School in Republic, Missouri, Strobel was a two-time All-District and First Team All-Conference selection as a prep. He dominated on the mound, going 5-1 with 58 strikeouts over 52.0 innings as a junior. He started three years in centerfield, a position he’s confident he could still handle.
“Oh, absolutely!” Strobel bragged with a grin, “You can take the cat out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the cat, right?!”
College teams were more interested in his electric right arm, and the potential of easy 90 mile per hour fastballs drew in plenty of programs. One of the first schools to show serious interest in Strobel was Missouri Southern State University, an NCAA Division II program in Joplin, Missouri. The Lions began recruiting Strobel late in his junior year. The competitor in Strobel gave him the desire to play for a successful program, and Missouri Southern showed him that promise by winning a 2013 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) Championship.
“They were coming off of a conference championship in my freshman year,” remembered Strobel, “That was a really big deal for me, going to a program that was going to compete and win all the time. I just kind of clicked with the coaches when I was on my visit, and really liked what they had. It was close to home, and it really was a no-brainer for me at first.”
Strobel began his 2014 true freshman season as most first year pitchers do, near the bottom of the pecking order. He made his collegiate debut against, ironically, future St. Cloud State conference rival Minnesota-Crookston on February 16th, 2014. The righty cruised through 2.0 shutout innings, working around three hits and a walk while striking out three. He picked up another scoreless outing in his next appearance, striking out the side and allowing a hit at Lincoln. After allowing one earned run over 1.1 relief frames and taking the loss in his next outing at Missouri S&T, the first of three outings that haunt his career took place on March 9th at Emporia State. Something didn’t feel right for Strobel as he warmed up.
“I kind of felt a pop on one of my warmup pitches,” Strobel recounted, “It wasn’t immediate pain or anything, so I wasn’t too concerned.”
Strobel said the soreness felt stranger as he continued throwing, and as he began his appearance, everything seemed to go haywire. His velocity was down, and his control seemed to go by the wayside. All four batters he faced reached, and he was promptly removed from the game and scheduled for tests. A few weeks later he received the diagnosis.
He had Ulnar Nerve Entrapment Syndrome and needed to undergo Ulnar Tunnel Release Surgery. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, ulnar nerve entrapment syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve in the arm becomes compressed or irritated, often at the elbow. His 2014 season was over.
“It was tough,” said Strobel, “because for the first couple of months we couldn’t figure out what it was.”
After initial tests for a torn UCL were negative, Strobel ultimately found his diagnosis at the Dr. Andrews Clinic in Birmingham. He received a medical redshirt for his first season, saving him an extra year of eligibility. Near the end of his redshirt freshman fall at Missouri Southern, Strobel decided to transfer, desiring somewhere he could focus on development after his lost first season. He set his sights on Allen County Community College in Iola, Kansas.
“I knew that I needed to get somewhere where I could be a little bit more focused on development, and JUCO is a good place to do that,” Strobel recounted, “One of my buddies had gone there, I talked with the coach, and we really hit it off. He told me his plan for getting me back to where I needed to be
Like most young pitchers in their first season off elbow surgery, Strobel struggled to maintain consistency. He made 9 appearances with 6 starts for the Red Devils in 2015, chartering a 6.31 ERA and a 5.01 FIP across 25.2 frames. Despite the struggles statistically, he found success in staying healthy and progressing to his pre-surgery form.
“The number one goal for me was to get my velocity back,” said Strobel, “For what we had, that was the most measurable thing that I could see to feel whether or not I was back to where I wanted to be. After that, it was trying to get a feel back for all my pitches, and that didn’t really happen until the end of the season.”
Strobel approached 2016 his redshirt sophomore campaign hungry for a second consecutive healthy season. As it ended up, he made just three appearances.
In his third outing (and second start) of the year, Strobel cruised through the first 4.1 innings against Butler Community College, striking out a career-high 6 batters. He vividly remembers the pitch that dashed his career for the second time.
“Oh yeah,” Strobel says, smiling in spite of himself, “That fifth inning was cut short because of that pitch. It was just immediate. I threw it, fastball, felt it, and I just walked off the field. I knew immediately.”
He underwent an MRI and received a diagnosis a few weeks later. This time, he did tear his UCL. Handed a one-way ticket to Tommy John Surgery, Strobel had reached the next itineration of his baseball journey. His 2016 season was over, and there was slim chance of being ready to pitch in 2017.
As Strobel rehabbed post-Tommy John, he spent the 2016-17 school year away from collegiate baseball. He took a few classes at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, and had a few tryout style workouts with the Drury Panthers baseball team. He also coached high school baseball for a local school.
One focus for Strobel in his off year was conditioning, as he had slipped a bit in that area during his injury recoveries. He had pondered playing for Drury, but he hadn’t yet returned to form by the start of the season. Healthy at last in the beginning of the summer, Strobel began the search for his next team. A close friend and two-year teammate at Allen County told him he had a home waiting for him in Minnesota.
Nathan Strobel holds nothing back when asked how large an impact Caeden Harris had on bringing him to St. Cloud State University.
“One hundred percent,” Strobel laughed, “That’s the reason. He told me even when I was rehabbing and didn’t know if I was going to throw again, he said, ‘Well, you need to, you need to get up here, I think we could use you, and you’d have a great time. You’d love it here.’ He talked to Dolan, brought me up here, got on a visit, and I said, ‘You know what, you’re right.’ I met the guys, loved the facilities, and I thought I’d really fit in here.”
Strobel committed to the Huskies soon thereafter. Harris had played two seasons with Strobel at Allen County, redshirted with SCSU in 2017 and posted a 1.045 OPS as the Huskies’ starting left fielder in 2018.
In the fall of 2017, Strobel quite literally blew his new coaching staff away with his finally-healthy arsenal, flashing low-90s heat and a plus slider in the lower 80s. He was named the team’s closer heading into 2018, replacing the graduated Miles Nablo. The righthander was happy to see his velocity back to its peak form but found consistency of his control and command to still be lacking.
Strobel recorded a stellar 1.84 ERA over 8 relief outings in 2018 going 1-1 with 2 saves. He threw 14.2 innings out of the pen, posting a 21.4% strikeout rate and a 10% walk rate along with a strong .677 opponent OPS. His spray stats were outstanding, as he worked at a 52.3% ground ball rate and a team-low 15.9% opponent hard hit rate. His FIP was a tad high at 4.19, although typical post-TJ early season command struggles led to high walk and hit-by-pitch numbers, accounting for the anomaly given his pure stuff. Finally, Strobel was enjoying success as an elite closer for a highly competitive team.
Then came the third itineration of Strobel’s injury bouts: March 30th, 2018.
St. Cloud State was in the third game of a weekend series on the road at the University of Sioux Falls. Strobel had been called upon out of the pen in the fifth inning, striking out both men he faced to strand a pair and preserve a 0-0 score. A rocky defensive inning in the sixth allowed two unearned runs to score, but Strobel came back out in the seventh. After forcing a quick lineout, Strobel fired the pitch that was thought to have ended his playing career.
“This one was a little bit different,” Strobel remembered, “It had kind of been nagging since I went out there for the second inning. It didn’t really hurt, like the first time I didn’t really think it was anything wild. I was like, alright, I’ll keep throwing. It was a fastball. I put one low on him, and I was like, that’s it. That one hurt too much. It didn’t really feel the same as when I popped my UCL, so I wasn’t really sure what was going on.”
As soon as the ball left his hand, he dropped his glove, clutched his arm, called for his pitching coach and walked to the dugout. Strobel’s season, and his career, was feared to be over. The initial diagnosis was another torn UCL. Assuming he wouldn’t be able to pitch in 2019, Strobel didn’t receive an MRI until mid summer. The final diagnosis left Strobel stunned, excited and jubilant all at once.
He had a torn forearm flexor, not a torn UCL. In fact, the doctors informed him that his flexor tear had healed so well that he would be fine in a few weeks. The Huskies had their closer back for the eagerly-anticipated 2019 season.
“I was really excited when I first got the diagnosis,” Strobel beamed, “Probably the most frustrating part for me was that I knew how good we were going to be this year, and that I wasn’t going to be part of that and help out somehow. That was a big relief for me, knowing that I would be able to come back and play with all the guys and compete for a World Series.”
Strobel went through a slow return-to-throw program as part of his nonsurgical flexor rehab. He had no significant setbacks and hasn’t experienced pain in quite some time. Due to a few class scheduling conflicts, he was unable participate in fall ball with the Huskies but has been throwing off a mound on his own and feels back to his normal self.
It’s been a long time coming, but Nathan Strobel is finally healthy and ready to roll as one of the best high-leverage stoppers in Division II.
“I definitely expect to pick up where I left off last year,” Strobel said confidently, “I felt pretty good before that injury, and I don’t think there’s any reason that I shouldn’t come out and be just like that again.”