GAINESVILLE — Tommy Toledo walked into the first-base dugout Thursday morning with a smile that indicated he's a young man thoroughly enjoying life right now.
When you consider what the Florida pitcher and graduate of Tampa's Alonso High has been through the past three years, his joy is understandable. Since he arrived in Gainesville, the 2007 St. Petersburg Times All-Hillsborough County Player of the Year has endured two devastating injuries that robbed him of one full season and a portion of another.
But when the SEC champion Gators begin play today in the NCAA tournament, Toledo will be an important part of a standout staff.
And after all he has endured, that's more than enough reason to smile.
"He's one of my favorites," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "To go through what he went through last year, it affected all of us. Obviously, it affected him and his family. But it affected the players. It affected the coaches. He's got such a good demeanor about him. And for him to come back this year, regain his form, his velocity, his arm is healthy and the way he's supported the rest of the team with his leadership, it's just been outstanding."
Toledo, a redshirt junior right-hander, sat out all of 2009 after reconstructive shoulder surgery. He was expected to miss 18-24 months but returned to start the 2010 season opener against USF on Feb. 19, going 31/3 innings in his first appearance since May 31, 2008.
But about one month later, on March 14, Toledo was on the mound against Charleston Southern when a line drive struck him in the face — causing severe facial fractures that sidelined him for another two months.
"The mental part was toughest because I had already sat out the whole season before," Toledo said. "I was trying to get out there again to get some more innings. Then a freak accident like that happens and sidelines me again. So the only thing I could do was try to get back out there as quickly as I could."
Toledo has learned that the old adage, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, is quite true.
"I hope nobody has to go through that," he said. "Those injuries can really take a toll … but you learn a lot from that adversity, too. My teammates helped me out through everything. It was so much fun to get back out here and play with these guys."
In 24 appearances (three starts) this season, Toledo is 4-3 with one save, a 3.31 ERA, 30 strikeouts and one home run allowed.
"He's doing better than he ever has," said UF infielder/outfielder Preston Tucker, a former Tampa Plant High standout. "He's coming in with runners in scoring position and leaving them on base. And he's not really giving hitters too much to hit. He's done a great job of doing exactly what we've asked of him."
"Tommy has been great," senior infielder Josh Adams said. "Everything he's been through, it's rough. For him to be able to come back and do what he's doing now, it's … something special, and it's fun to be a part of."
Toledo said there's one key to his success this season: He's not hurt.
"I feel like I've contributed a lot more because I've been healthy the whole season," he said. "It's definitely comforting because I know what I'm capable of. It's just a matter of doing it. I've finally had the opportunity this year to do it. This all means so much to me. I'm looking forward to us, hopefully, making a good run."
Gator likely out: Sophomore pitcher Brian Johnson, who last week sustained a concussion after being hit in the head by a thrown ball, likely will miss this weekend's region games. He is still experiencing headaches and sensitivity to light. Alex Panteliodis, an Alonso High graduate, likely will start Florida's third game in Johnson's place.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.