TAMPA — By his second relief inning in last year's season opener, USF right-hander Ryan Valdes had lost the fizz on his fastball.
A pitch that flirted with 90 mph had decelerated into the mid 80s, and the Alonso High alumnus didn't know why. He gutted his way through the night, allowing four runs on six hits in an 11-10 win against Liberty, but at a nearby Applebee's later that evening, Valdes couldn't squeeze the ketchup bottle.
Before you could say Tommy John, USF's season again had been sabotaged by another arm malady. Roughly six weeks later, Valdes was undergoing a procedure to replace a dislodged elbow ligament with one from his hamstring, joining no fewer than two other heralded Bulls pitchers on the shelf.
"It's one of those things, we just had to endure it," said coach Mark Kingston, who watched that club lose five of its last six en route to a 24-33 record.
A year later, the Bulls (40-15) enter the American Athletic Conference tournament ranked first nationally in strikeouts per nine innings (10.4) and 10th in team ERA (3.15). Their 572 strikeouts are a program single-season record.
For Valdes and fellow Tommy John veterans Shane McClanahan and Peter Strzelecki, neither of whom threw a pitch as Bulls newcomers last season, rehab has been followed by redemption.
"Coming in, you heard a lot about Shane and you heard a lot about Pete, who are great pitchers," shortstop Kevin Merrell said.
"I had never seen much of them, but in the fall you got signs like, 'Hey, these guys could be pretty good.' … They're great, great pitchers and they've been a huge part of our success so far."
Valdes, a fifth-year senior who periodically starts but mostly comes out of the bullpen, is 9-1 with a 3.95 ERA. McClanahan (4-2, 3.45 ERA, 99 strikeouts), a 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman lefty and the most heralded draft prospect on the staff, ranks fifth nationally with 12.67 strikeouts per nine innings.
Strzelecki (3-3, 2.48), a right-handed junior college transfer, has surrendered four total earned runs in his last 22 innings, all after the unexpected death of his 52-year-old father to a heart attack on April 25.
Toss in senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders (5-2, 2.83, 99 strikeouts), who starts today's AAC tournament opener against Tulane, and a bullpen anchored by lefty Andrew Perez (5-2, 1.89, six saves) and righty Joe Cavallaro (5-2, 2.08, four saves), and the Bulls project as an NCAA tournament dark horse.
"They're very physical and they've got pitching," ESPN college baseball analyst Mike Rooney said. "And it's not like it will be their first (NCAA) regional; they were there two years ago."
Many expected them to be back there in 2016, but McClanahan and Strzelecki — power pitchers — went on the shelf in the preseason. Then Valdes went down. Then All-AAC catcher Luke Borders, who started all 61 games behind the plate in '15, was lost for the year with a mysterious bacterial infection.
"We had to get through it," Kingston said. "It wasn't always fun, but I think we grew a lot from it."
The resurgence has been borderline historic. USF finished a victory shy of its first conference regular season title since 1996, which was also its last 40-win season until now.
"I told (McClanahan and Strzelecki) last year when they were going through their Tommy John stuff, 'Listen, people don't know about us, so don't tell 'em about us, go out there and show them what we can do,' " Valdes said.
"And they're doing it. They're out there showing what they've got. They're amazing."
AAC HONORS: Merrell and Borders were first-team picks on the All-ACC team selected by league coaches. USF outfielder Duke Stunkel Jr. and pitchers Sanders and Strzelecki made the second team.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.