Kapala Ready For Action

Right-handed pitcher Dan Kapala was on his way. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound hurler had just finished his second year with the Irish as arguably Notre Dame's best pitcher at the end of the 2005 season. Unfortunately, for Kapala and the Irish, the rise to the top was short lived.

Dan Kapala's sophomore year was one of promise. The Royal Oak, Mich. native started the season as a key set-up man for the Irish, but his performance on the mound impressed former Irish coach Paul Mainieri so much that he was pushed into the coveted weekend starting rotation. Kapala didn't disappoint, especially during tournament time picking up a win in the BIG EAST title game, and another in his only start in the regional in 2005. His performance was good enough to be named to the NCAA Regional All-Tournament Team.

Over his first two seasons Kapala combined for a 9-4 record with 81 strikeouts and nine starts for Notre Dame. He walked just 43 batters and he held opposing hitters to a .261 batting average while on the mound for the Irish.

The future certainly looked bright for Kapala to take the next step and compete for the coveted ace role in Notre Dame's crowded rotation in 2006…..that was until the pain became too much to handle. The then junior tore his labrum in his shoulder sometime during the fall of 2005 and missed his junior season. He had shoulder surgery that fall and has been on the long road to recovery every since.

"I was given opportunities, and I just tried to make the most of them," Kapala said when asked about his outstanding sophomore season. "It was just unfortunate the way it worked out having the injury. The injury was in the fall so I've had a lot of time to recover, so I'm ready to come back strong this year and get back to where I was."

The happy-go-lucky Kapala said the waiting has been the hardest part of his rehab.

"That was probably the worst part," he said. "It's a long, slow process coming back from an injury like that. It's been a 13 ½ month rehab. It's been pretty much every day going in and working on it. The results were slow. Now it's just exciting to get back on the mound and to get ready for the season."

Kapala was used to the camaraderie between teammates that all baseball players enjoy during the season. While the Irish were competing for another Big East Championship last season, the now senior spent a lot of time with his new best friend, longtime Notre Dame baseball athletic trainer Mike Bean.

"We're best buddies," Kapala said of Bean. "We've spent a lot of time together. The way he's handled this whole situation helped me through. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Bean also said Kapala was the model patient.

"I spend more time with him than I do my own kids some times," Bean said with a laugh. "You build a bond with someone you spend so much time with. We had a nice relationship. Dan did all the work, and I just tried to point him in the right direction.

"Right from the get-go Dan was on board. He said he'd do whatever it took and he did. He's been remarkable. He's been compliant with everything. A lot of times we do stuff that kids wonder why we do them, but Dan never questioned anything. His dedication was really remarkable. He followed the plan right to letter. So far we've got the outcome we'd like, and there's still a ways to go, but hopefully we'll fall into place without any roadblocks. "The mental part of a rehab is a big hurdle to get over. It's time-consuming, it's tedious, it's grueling, and having the proper mindset to get through that every day is not easy."

Bean said that Kapala's injury isn't uncommon among pitchers in baseball.

"It's an occupational hazard," he said of the labrum injury. "It's an injury that a lot of baseball players sustain from throwing a baseball all the time. The injury itself is damage to the inside of the joint. Basically you get to the point where you just can't throw with it because of the pain or the arm won't function. When you get to that point you have to make some hard decisions."

Bean and Kapala made the decision to have the surgery, and it appears it was a good one because the senior right-hander seems to be inching closer to 100 percent as the season nears.

"I kind of took it easy in the fall," Kapala said. "I kind of took low pitch counts and low velocity workouts, but still getting to throw to hitters. When I came back from Christmas break, I've pretty much been on the same plan as all the other pitchers. Now every outing I just try to get stronger and a higher pitch count. I'm getting back to my old self."

The former Shrine Catholic high school star said he's had to make some tweaks to his throwing motion and delivery to make sure he has no further problems in the future.

"I had a lot of adjustments to clean up the mechanical problems I had before, which may have led to the injury," Kapala said. "When I did start throwing again, I did make sure my mechanics are sound. I've just been conscious of taking care of my arm. You just can't take anything for granted.

"It was mainly just using my legs and just working on my legs as much as I could. It was also letting my back do more of the work instead of my shoulder….just finishing down and in a good position to take the stress off my arm."

The hard work has paid off for Kapala, and he said he finally felt the injury was behind him late during fall practices.

"It was probably when I started to be able to throw off the mound," he said when asked when he knew he'd be back to his old self soon. "When I was throwing off the mound it felt 100 times better than when I was throwing before I had the surgery. That was the most encouraging part because when you go through rehab, you start thinking, ‘maybe I didn't need the surgery.' It just reassured me that it was all worth it and gave me a real boost of confidence."

How close is Kapala to being on the mound for the Irish this season?

"I've started throwing my slider over the last month or so," he said. "That's usually the last thing to come are the breaking pitches. Now I'm throwing it in scrimmages when we do live work. They'll still monitor my pitch count, but I should be back 100 percent." "It's just getting used to pitching at the intensity of the game level," he added. "No matter how many times you try to simulate it, nothing is like the game situation. I've just got to get used to it again."

New Irish pitching coach Sherard Clinkscales says he expects to see a lot of Kapala on the mound for the Irish this season, and probably very soon.

"Kap's done a good job," Clinkscales said. "We actually had a bullpen this morning and he's starting to let it go. His extension is going really well. Usually guys who have labrum surgeries have a tendency to get behind the ball. He's incorporated his slider, and that's really coming along. I'm really optimistic moving forward.

"He is going to be a factor. When the game time comes, he's going to be ready to go."

But how soon will we see Kapala? Maybe this weekend? "I think a lot of that depends on coach Schrage, but I think we're going to incorporate him early," he said. "You have to get him out there as soon as possible. He's a veteran and he's been through the wars. Having him out there is going to help us with the young guys."

One thing is certain; Kapala can't wait for the opportunity.

"I'm just going to be really excited. It's been so long," he said about returning to the mound for the Irish. "It's been almost two years since I've really gotten to pitch. I'll just be excited to get out there and throw strikes and get outs. I'm sure it will be emotional."

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