Following another rehabber on the mound for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals, big leaguer Brian Fuentes, Copeland pitched a 1-2-3 inning. The 23-year-old caught the first batter looking at a called third strike, then induced a fly out and a ground out. He threw 15 pitches, 11 for strikes. Ten were fastballs in the same 87-88 mph range he threw before the surgery.
Copeland said his biggest focus was "keeping the ball down and throwing strikes." The 5-foot-11 left-hander from Chicago's northwest suburbs was a fan of the White Sox, not the Cubs, before he was drafted the Cardinals in the 32nd round in 2010. He had not thrown a pitch in competition since a Double-A spring training game March 27 against the Marlins.
At first, "I was very discouraged to think my career might end," Copeland said Saturday. He said his girlfriend, who had just returned to Illinois after a spring training visit, flew back to support him during his hospital stay. Without the support of his girlfriend and his family, "I really don't think I could have gotten through it," he noted.
Rehabbing from the surgery was difficult. "I basically had to reteach myself how to use my right arm," he said. "I couldn't even hold my glove up at first," recalled Copeland, who was the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year in his first professional season at Johnson City (7-0, 1.86 ERA in 2010).
Copeland, who is one semester short of completing his degree in exercise science, said that during his rehab he realized how he "had underestimated how important it is for your other body parts to be in synch with your throwing arm. You realize every little body part is a piece of the puzzle."
The rib that was removed has been added to his small collection of memorabilia from his career, which includes balls from his first professional win and first professional save as well as the ball from the final pitch he threw closing out Illinois State's win over Wichita State in the 2010 Missouri Valley Conference championship final.
Copeland returned to Jupiter on May 30 and resumed throwing in mid-June. "I was eager to get out there," he said. "It was great to be out there and go through that pre-game routine.
"Pitching with a purpose and competing was the biggest thing I missed during that time."
His comeback is ahead of schedule, the pitcher noted. "I was not expected to pitch until next year." But if he had to wait, it would have been a much longer winter, Copeland said.
The day after his outing, Copeland said he felt "a little sore, but it feels good." He said it is the typical soreness he would feel after pitching before the surgery. "It's a good sore where you know you put in some work," he admitted.
Copeland said he expects to pitch once more in the GCL and then will hope for a roster spot to open either in Palm Beach or Springfield "so it won't be a completely lost season."
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