TAMPA — There is pitching on five days' rest, occasionally on four days' rest. And for USF's Derrick Stultz, there is pitching on 1,000 days' rest.
The Bulls have gotten a boost from two pitchers making comebacks. One, Stultz, a senior right-hander, missed nearly three years after tearing the labrum in his shoulder in May 2009.
"For me to be back on the mound, it's just huge for me," said Stultz, a graduate of Wharton High who received a degree in interdisciplinary social sciences last week.
"I had setbacks. It just wasn't healing the way we wanted it to. Somewhere, it just clicked. The rehab changed, and I was back. When you're out that long, you're appreciative of what you have."
Stultz missed all of 2010 and 2011 but started making progress last summer. After going 9-7 with a 3.84 ERA in his first two seasons, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is 7-1 with a 3.39 ERA. His rise has coincided with the Bulls' — 30-18 (13-8 and tied for fourth in the Big East) after two straight losing seasons.
"I think this is, by far, the best all-around team … we've had here," said Stultz, 23, set to start Saturday against Connecticut in Game 2 of USF's final home series of the season. "We've really connected well as a team. We're more of a family than we've ever been."
Stultz was not alone in his rehab.
The Bulls' top pitcher, senior Andrew Barbosa, missed nearly all of last season after elbow ligament replacement surgery (aka Tommy John surgery). Barbosa is 6-4 with a 2.29 ERA that's third in the Big East. Having two reliable veterans in the weekend rotation has been a blessing for the Bulls, coach Lelo Prado said.
"Derrick's … been solid for us," he said. "He put a lot of effort into his rehab this summer and fall. He knows this is his year to get a chance, and he's throwing the ball good. We're fortunate that he came back; that he's healthy."
Stultz's first game back came Feb. 19 against Minnesota. In 2⅔ innings of relief, a conservative first test, he earned the win, allowing three hits and an unearned run. He admitted he felt the same nervousness he felt as a freshman making his first college pitches four years earlier.
Stultz made one more relief appearance, going 3⅔ innings on Feb. 25. He made first start March 3, earning the win against Savannah State by allowing three hits and one unearned run over six innings.
Stultz credits his resurgence to second-year pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. Hernandez came to USF after 31 years of pro experience, including as the Rays pitching coach in 2004-05. Stultz said Hernandez was "fantastic" in building back his arm and confidence, and Prado said the key was being patient.
"The thing Chuck did was really took his time with him," Prado said. "Another guy might have come in and said, 'You're going to pitch now.' He took his time with him; rehabbed the right way."
Stultz's physical recovery has run parallel with an overall maturation over the long absence from baseball. He calls himself "a new man," someone who has weathered the "mental beatdown" of a multiyear rehab process and emerged as a better person. Prado says he sees a realization of the potential he saw five years ago when Stultz signed.
"When everybody counted him out, I always knew there was a chance that Derrick could still become the pitcher I thought he could become," Prado said. "He's grown up in the classroom and out on the field. He's a great kid. He's a laid-back kind of guy.
"But I thought if that light ever hit, look out because you'll get what we're seeing right now."