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Rays minor-leaguer Tyler Zombro on track to return from traumatic incident

A line drive fractured the pitcher’s skull in June at Triple-A Durham, but he plans to report to spring training and soon be back to 100 percent.
Tyler Zombro will be back on the mound much sooner than some may have expected after a serious blow to his head back in June.
Tyler Zombro will be back on the mound much sooner than some may have expected after a serious blow to his head back in June. [ BRIAN VILLANUEVA | (2021) ]
Published Feb. 15|Updated Feb. 15

Tyler Zombro doesn’t remember being hit by the line drive that fractured his skull on June 3.

He has some recollection of the six days afterward that he spent in the hospital, of learning what happened after he was struck on the side of head while pitching for the Rays’ Triple-A Durham team.

How he had a seizure after collapsing face first on the mound. Underwent emergency surgery that required 16 titanium plates and 32 screws installed to stabilize his skull and reduce pressure on his brain. Temporarily lost motor skills on the left side of his body. And found talking difficult, with his speech slow and words hard to formulate.

He is, however, extremely clear on what will come next, as he plans to report to minor-league spring training Feb. 28 and resume his pitching career.

“Within the next month to two months,” Zombro said Monday, “I certainly will be 100 percent.”

Related: From March 2020: How Coach Z is impacting Rays pitchers, others

Zombro, 27, will return wearing protective headgear under his cap, a custom-fitted Kevlar-padded insert, with no other limitations or special treatment — although with a noticeable scar on the right side of his head — and he expects to be ready for the early April start of the minor-league season.

He was cleared medically after a CT scan in December showed his fracture had healed, that the plates protecting his brain were in the proper places — “Just checking the box to make sure everything is how it should be,” he said — and administratively by Major League Baseball a few weeks ago.

“They said, “You’re good to go,’ ” Zombro said. “So I’ve booked my housing for spring (training), and I’ll be there.”

Zombro has worked hard, and through considerable frustration, to get to where he is. He also had plenty of help, with a broad support group led by his wife, Moriah, a registered nurse who was in the stands at Durham when he was hit, his parents, friends and a long list of former and current teammates, who Zombro said “gas me up to get back out there.”

Though the Rays named Zombro their minor-league pitcher of the year for 2019 for a stellar season spent mostly at Double-A, and he has been an invitee to the last two big-league camps, he is not considered among their promising prospects.

While he still harbors the usual dream of getting to the majors, with the additional drive of not being drafted out of high school in Staunton (Va.) or George Mason University, Zombro has a practical side.

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He already has been working on his post-playing career, doing analytical and high-tech player development and training for a private facility, Tread Athletics, in Charlotte. He started on that track as a college intern with the R&D Baseball Academy and has worked — studying video, stats and scouting reports — with hundreds of college and pro players, including some current and former Rays mates.

As Zombro pondered his future after being hit, he decided he was okay if he didn’t pitch again. But his family and friends thought otherwise, and that has driven his comeback through the initially slow progress of physical, occupational and speech therapy; he also tried Sudoku puzzles and eye-tracking drills to speed his recovery.

“I definitely view it as an accomplishment for myself,” he said. “On my end, the neurological components of getting back to how my brain was functioning prior, to do the work that I do, that’s a little more important for my long-term life quality.

“But at the same time, I think, honestly, on the physical side, it’s more of a testament to my wife, family, certainly teammates. A lot of this physical side is certainly for myself to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done it, I’m getting back out there.’ But it’s even more so for them. They’ve pushed me to do it, to not throw in the towel. ...

“I certainly could not play baseball ever again and be very fine with where I’m at in life. But they’ve certainly motivated me to take advantage of the window I have, get back out there. They’ve instilled a lot of that passion really back into me.”

Tyler Zombro says he was at peace with possibly never pitching again, but family and friends encouraged him to not give up.
Tyler Zombro says he was at peace with possibly never pitching again, but family and friends encouraged him to not give up. [ FRANK FRANKLIN II | Associated Press ]

Dr. Steven Cook, the Duke University Hospital neurosurgeon who led the 2½-hour operation the night of the incident, had told Zombro pending all going well he could aim to return this spring, as farfetched as that may have seemed given the trauma of the moment.

The initial extended time off from any physical activity — brain bleeding was a major issue early on — and even longer for athletic training and pitching was of some concern. But Zombro began playing catch several months ago, and in late January he stepped back on a mound for the first time to throw and felt good about it.

Perhaps the biggest question is one that can’t yet be answered: How will Zombro react when a ball is hit back at him? He figures that mindset and his training, which includes drills where he bounces a ball off a wall while wearing strobe-light glasses, have allowed him to be without concern or fears.

“I’ve prepared for that,” he said. “I think as far as, like, being in the moment, being in a game again, because I can’t recall anything during a duration of time there around the injury (nor has he watched the horrific video), I don’t have that in my head at all.

“I haven’t thrown (since the injury) with a hitter in the box. But there’s really nothing when I’m throwing or training where that thought enters my mind. Honestly, as soon as I just put my hat on — and I know it’s a ... little more difficult to put on — but other than that it really doesn’t enter my mind.”

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