Something to prove: Pitcher returns to the mound after two-year injury

Marcus Traxler

In their simplest form, sports are fairly cut-and-dried. You win or you lose.

Layne Somsen sees it that way.

Expectations have always been high for him, what’s more, he set those expectations for himself. And in his own words, he’s failed.

He could blame his elbow for giving way and then failing to cooperate when he wanted to return to action. Somsen won’t do that, and he’s convinced that his best days on the mound are still in front of him.

• • •

It’s the stuff of legend in South Dakota baseball history. Pure, overpowering heat. Velocity that just blew away the best hitters around. In high school, Somsen continually raised the bar even higher, pitch after pitch.

That skill develops over time. He had been prepping to be a pitcher since he was 5-years-old. Even then he took it more seriously than most, developing a competitive nature that is essential for any budding athlete.

“He took a liking to baseball at a pretty young age,” said Dan Somsen, Layne’s dad. “He was just a natural for baseball. He played T-ball at a young age in Yankton and the supervisors said that he should probably move up a grade level because he almost knocked a coach off the mound in T-ball.”

Once in high school, there seemed to be no peak for his ability. He struck out 85 batters in 45 innings as a junior for Yankton and then bettered that with 128 strikeouts in 60 innings as a senior for the Bucks.

He averaged over two strikeouts per inning as a senior. He hit 88 miles-per-hour regularly during his high school career, topping out at 92. Pitching looked easy for Somsen and by his own admission, it was.

“I guess I was pretty good. I threw hard in high school and not many people see that and I guess that gave me the upper hand,” he said.

Somsen was a solid outfielder too but it was his level of pitching that held interest for both the pro scouts and college recruiters. His goal of playing Division I was in reach and with interest from then-head coach Reggie Christiansen, Somsen made the decision to join the Jackrabbits.

Once in Brookings, Somsen and former SDSU pitching coach Jake Angier made the decision to have him focus all of his duties on pitching because that would likely be Somsen’s best career path if he wanted to play professional baseball. Plus, as a pre-physical therapy major, there wouldn’t be time to focus on classes and go to two sets of practices during the offseason.

With his college career focused on pitching, the level of expectation increased with SDSU throwing him into the starting rotation in his first year. Somsen felt that his stuff would still be largely unhittable despite the move to Division I baseball, a notion that he would find to be untrue.

Somsen made a team-high 12 starts as a freshman but that was pretty much the end of the good news. He lost his first seven decisions as a pitcher and finished the season at 4-7, with a 5.32 earned run average in 66 innings. Gone were the days of two strikeouts an inning; Somsen finished the season with 44 walks and 36 strikeouts.

“I was wondering what I was doing wrong and I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was just that the hitters were just that much better,” he said.

He thought it would be easy pitching in college but Somsen realized that the level of the opposition was no longer filled with guys who had no aspirations to play further than South Dakota Legion baseball or high school. This was Division I and most of his opponents weren’t going to spin themselves into the ground against Somsen’s stuff.

“I thought I was going to be able to come in and strike everybody out and that’s not what happened and I had to realize that I’m playing Division I baseball and not South Dakota Legion baseball,” Somsen said.

He spent time nursing a sore arm during the fall of 2009 preparing for his sophomore season and didn’t throw much. It was nothing to be alarmed about for the time being.

• • •

Pop. He heard it but kept going.

On Feb. 27, 2010, Somsen made his first start of the season against Murray State in the Jacks’ second game of the year. He worked through the first inning with little trouble, allowing one hit. The second inning was not normal for Somsen. He heard the sound coming from his elbow but stayed in the game. It didn’t hurt. He kept pitching, getting out of the inning, allowing two runs on one hit and an SDSU error.

But as he was walking to the dugout, the shrill pain set in. His whole right arm was numb from the elbow down to his fingers. Somsen’s day — and season — was done.

“I came out and it just hurt,” he said. “It was just a fastball and I knew it right away.”

For mom Barb and dad Dan, it was hard to only hear about the pain from 800 miles away.

“We decided that we would try to make a couple other road trips because we went to Murray State in 2009. As parents, you feel bad that you’re not there when he was hurt,” Dan said.

An MRI was unclear and Somsen continued to get mixed signals from both his test results and his doctors, who knew that he had an elbow injury but were unclear on the extent of the injury. He tried a few weeks of rehab but his arm only returned to about 70 percent before he decided that he needed to seek a second opinion.

“I knew something was wrong because I was doing all of my rehab twice a day and nothing was changing,” Somsen said.

In May 2010, Somsen went to St. Louis to visit with the medical director and head team physician for the St. Louis Cardinals, George Paletta. After a few simple tests totaling no more than about 10 minutes, Paletta diagnosed Somsen with an 80 percent tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and recommended him for surgery. A few weeks later, Somsen was under the knife to replace the ligament with tendon from his left wrist.

His elbow and his baseball career would have a long way to go.

• • •

It’s one thing to hear about pitchers coming back from an arm injury. It’s quite another to carry the scar and deal with setbacks.

Somsen struggled when he arrived in college and in a similar sense he wasn’t ready for a setback when he was trying to work his elbow back into shape. The pitcher was almost in a hurry to get back into shape and rejoin the team because he knew how strong of a team SDSU had in 2010.

“I knew we had the big bats and I wanted to get back as fast as I could and I think that was what made my injury prolong. I didn’t let it heal correctly,” Somsen said. “I would feel alright and then my elbow would just inflame.”

Finally, rather than rush him back, the SDSU trainers decided it would be wise to shutdown Somsen for the 2011 campaign too. That meant not picking up a ball for three months and letting his elbow heal, letting go of baseball for the longest time in his career.

Rehab took so much out of Somsen that he had thoughts about quitting baseball when the frustration mounted. His father said that he never verbalized those thoughts at the time but said that his son was, as a competitor, frustrated with his inability to heal and return to the diamond. The younger Somsen credits his teammates for keeping him involved and keeping his spirits up.

“If I didn’t have the teammates that I did have, I probably would’ve hung it up. I credit SDSU’s training staff and they just really helped me out every step of the way,” he said.

• • •

In an almost too perfect twist of fate, Somsen returned to Murray State on Feb. 26, 2012, one day shy of exactly two years from his injury. Again, he made his first start of the season and again he threw two innings. It was a less-than spectacular return; he took the loss. But this time, he left the mound with a solid elbow and feeling well.

For the first time since the injury, Somsen could trust his elbow and his increasingly important confidence level continued to rise.

“I was kind of scared to throw like I used to,” Somsen said of his 2012 start. “I tried to just tweak little things and then I just decided to relax and throw and it all clicked.”

His season so far has been much like his collegiate career: up and down. Somsen is 0-4 in eight appearances, with 35.2 innings worked this season. However, he’s allowed 14 earned runs in those innings. He hit a career-high for strikeouts against Iowa April 14, fanning nine Hawkeyes in Omaha, Neb.

“He’s a great kid and he’s one of our hardest workers,” SDSU head coach Dave Schrage said. “He’s in a spot where when he pitches well, we have trouble scoring runs and when we hit, he doesn’t seem to pitch well. He just needs to break through and hopefully he’ll build off that.”

“After being out for two years, the biggest thing is just going to what is comfortable and I think that has taken some time. He’s getting back into a groove and getting into a rhythm that feels good to him,” SDSU pitching coach Tyler Oakes said.

Now without hesitation, he’s been working on adding a cutter to his pitching repertoire — an idea that cropped up when Somsen was experimenting after surgery and getting a baseball back in his hands.

Somsen said he could get by in high school with just a fastball and a breaking ball but to be successful in Division I, he needed a third pitch.

“I was just sort of fooling around with it and figured that I would give it a shot. The cutter is such a better college pitch because hitters can see a curveball from a mile away,” he said.

“He did it on his own and he came to me. I let him show it off and it has developed into probably his best breaking pitch right now to offset the curve and the fastball,” Oakes said.

Eligibility wise, Somsen is a junior but he’s not sure if he’ll try to get another season at the end of his career, something that’s possible despite taking a medical redshirt in 2010. He wants to go to physical therapy school when he’s done at SDSU and he said he might just start in on that when his career is over.

Of course, professional baseball remains a hope and a dream. His arm is back to throwing 88 on the speed gun, touching 92 like he used to. The same scouts that were watching him before the injury are now watching him again.

“I feel like I can be that dominant again,” Somsen said. “I haven’t pitched the way that I feel I can during college and I have to prove to people that I can do it at this level.”

• • •

Somsen made a start on April 11, against Minnesota at Erv Huether Field and the theme of his career was apparent again. He threw a pitch to the backstop, skidding past catcher Zach Briggs before rolling back toward home plate. In the same inning, Somsen recorded all three outs by strikeout.

Perhaps proof that he’s bouncing back once more.