"I was surprised to see him come out and throw four innings," said Whitecaps play-by-play announcer Ben Chiswick. "After an injury and a year-long recovery like that, I thought they might throw him an inning or so. But it was great to see how well he was able to pitch in that first game back."
Drafted in the 26th round by the Detroit Tigers in 2010, Jeff Ferrell had a promising professional debut in the Gulf Coast League where he experienced a decent amount of success. He went 5-5 in 63.2 innings of work with a 3.25 ERA and was feeling good about his game.
"Waiting in the bullpen before my first start I was struggling and really nervous," said Ferrell. "But once I got out there and got in a groove it felt really good and boosted my confidence for sure."
Ferrell was called up to the West Michigan Whitecaps the following year but less than two months into the season, Ferrell was placed on the Disabled List with a sore elbow on his right arm. After being activated a couple weeks later, in his second outing, he again felt soreness and pain in his elbow, particularly after throwing a slider where he left the mound in agony. MRIs revealed torn ligaments, led to Tommy John surgery and forced the right hander from Greenville, North Carolina to miss an entire year of baseball.
Taking the mound again for the first time since May 22, 2011, Ferrell lasted four strong innings, gave up only two hits and allowed no runs. The 6-foot-3, 185 pounder was simply ecstatic to be back out in the field after a difficult year of trying to get everything back.
"I loved being back out there and I was really looking forward to it," said Ferrell. "Down there in extended [spring training] it's not always the best so to come back up here – I was a little nervous in the first inning – and get settled in like I was able to do, it felt really good."
Rehabbing down in Lakeland by himself, Ferrell had a tough go about it at times and making the baby steps toward getting his arm back to full strength was something he was worried about.
"The first few steps of throwing again was probably the toughest part – actually letting it loose and having to get past the fact that my arm had been injured. Being in Lakeland by myself was pretty tough rehabbing all day and every day but letting it loose was the hardest thing for me."
But Ferrell kept at it on the sidelines because he knew what he had had at one point and he was willing and determined to do whatever it took to get back there. "The biggest thing was looking back at what I had and where I had been which was my biggest motivation to get back there as soon as I could."
But rehabbing wasn't all work with no play for Ferrell, who had the opportunity to play a few rounds of golf with Tigers' starters Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander. "Getting to golf with them was a lot of fun – definitely the ultimate experience for me. We didn't really talk baseball at all because we were trying to get away from it for a bit but those guys are really good guys. They sure beat me pretty good out there on the golf course though."
Now back in West Michigan, Ferrell knows he still has a lot of work to do, especially with one of his pitches in particular: his slider that caused him pain and derailed a hopeful season one year ago.
"I need to get back my slider. If I can get that back, I feel pretty confident about myself but right now, I'm just working with my changeup and fastball and trying to throw my slider but I just haven't gotten it back completely."
Ferrell is also experiencing something he's not quite as familiar with – coming out of the bullpen. Spending an entire life and career as a starter, he says it's been a little bit of an adjustment but he's here to do whatever it takes to help his team win and get better as a pitcher.
"In extended spring training I was actually starting and I got up to five innings so I thought I was coming here to start, but they told me before I left that I was going to be a reliever which is fine. I think they're still a little iffy about me throwing a lot of pitches but long relief is a lot of fun too. But I mean, I'm ready to go now and know I'm as ready as I can be."
In the back of his mind, though, he thinks about getting back to a starting role and ultimately, start for the team that drafted him after one year of junior college in Pittsburgh two years ago.
"I'm hoping to get back to being in a starting position but whatever they think is best for me I'll do. I enjoy starting and have done it all my life so I'm more used to starting than in coming out of the bullpen. But again, whatever they want me to do, I'll do."