More than a game

Matt Veltmann was once a major league prospect. Now, he is just trying to get back on track and make a name for himself once again.

Ping. Ping. Ping.

It was the sound of five consecutive USC Trojan bats ripping more than just a fastball. It was the destruction of everything a young pitcher had left to live for.

For Matt Veltmann, April 13, 2009, was more than just a bad day at the ballpark.

It was the day he "lost baseball."

He trudged off the mound that day wondering who he was after surrendering nine runs without retiring a single batter.

"I felt as if I had lost the exact thing that I wanted to gain," Veltmann said. "Baseball was everything I had in my heart. Everything."

He made one more appearance that year coming out of the bullpen against Arizona State. Once again he struggled and gave up six runs in a fraction of an inning.

A pitcher who was at one time regarded as one of the best in southern California and a certain Major League prospect was now a distant afterthought in the college baseball world.

But the Matt Veltmann story goes far beyond a game played with a metal bat and a ball. In the span of about 12 months Veltmann witnessed his father's death, lost his soon-to-be fiancé, saw his three dogs die, and, eventually lost the game he lived for, thanks to a back injury sustained when he helped his stepmother move.

"Everything that happened to me during that span really changed my identity," Veltmann said. "Everything that was at my core was just stripped away from me."

It was the two bulging disks in his back that led to an abysmal 2009 season where he finished the year with a 2-5 record and an earned run average of 12, the highest on the team.

Then it happened.

Veltmann lost his scholarship and sat out all of 2010. Baseball was no longer a part of his life.

Or so he thought.

A day in late May last year, he decided to go throw again after sitting out all last season. There were no lights, no crowd, and no reporters to constantly remind him of his past failures.

It was just Veltmann.

Veltmann and his 86 MPH fastball, a fastball, for the first time in about a year, that didn't wrench his back when he released the ball.

"That outing to me was absolutely a turning point, that said to me ‘wow, you know what I can still do this,' " Veltmann said.

A few months later Arizona head coach Andy Lopez received one of the more shocking calls he's ever received.

It was Veltmann requesting just one last chance.

"Lopez was extremely surprised, but I think pleasantly surprised," says Veltmann. "He agreed to let me come back and give it another shot and I can't even tell you how happy I was."

And come back is exactly what Veltmann did. He arrived at Arizona's fall tryouts in the middle of October. This time, instead of battling for the top spot in the pitching rotation, he was just fighting for a chance to make the team.

Arizona top performers from 2010, Kurt Heyer and Kyle Simon, had the first two weekend spots in the rotation locked down. But Veltmann pitched so well in the fall that not only did he make the team, but was a leading candidate for the final weekend spot.

"He looked good," Lopez says. "He was definitely the favorite and you know he had that look about him, like he had something to prove."

And "that look" wasn't just a look. It was a transformation.

It was, Veltmann says, "me channeling all the negative energy, all the anger I had, and using it for something positive."

He didn't get that starting spot. In fact through 43 games this season, he hasn't pitched in a single game.

"But it doesn't matter," he says. "I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and I had to start liking myself. It was that simple."

While Veltmann's comeback has been personal, his teammates have taken notice, including Arizona catcher Jetty Bandy, who also was on the team with Veltmann two years ago.

"Matt's a new man," Bandy said. "If you watch the games, Matt is the first guy out of the dugout just blowing his guts out everyday, and that's the kind of guy you want on your team."

Whether Veltmann pitches again in an Arizona uniform is yet to be determined. But one thing is for certain, whether he wins 10 or zero games this year, he's already won life's version of the World Series.

"I'm better than I've ever been," he says. "I'm finally happy."

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