LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Three different colleges, more cross-country drives in a crammed 2003 Buick Century than any man should be forced to endure and a lengthy recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery.
All those impediments paid off for 2012 Port Angeles High School graduate Cole Uvila when the 6-foot-4, 210-pound righthanded pitcher was selected in Major League Baseball’s 40th and final round with the 1,199th pick by the Texas Rangers Wednesday afternoon.
He’ll soon pack up again, say goodbye to his girlfriend Kyla Andrus and dog Lola and head to Arizona to get checked out by doctors, sign a contract and see where he’ll start his professional career — rookie ball in Arizona or low A ball with the Spokane Indians in the Northwest League.
Uvila found out the good news via a text from Kyle Boddy, a Texas Rangers draft analyst and owner of Driveline Baseball, a baseball training facility in Kent, where Uvila rehabbed after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm on March 17, 2016.
“It was a really long day waiting to hear my name and Kyle was texting me the whole day, kind of lifting my spirits and telling me don’t give up hope,” Uvila said while at a Kentucky rest stop on his last cross-country trip back to Washington from Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga.
“The last round of the draft he texted me a few picks before and told me I was a Texas Ranger. My phone kind of blew up after that.”
Reaching this milestone has been a journey for Uvila, 24.
“I’m kind of a late bloomer,” he said.
A skinny beanpole coming out of Port Angeles where he played shortstop and pitched for the Roughriders and played three summers for the Wilder Baseball Club, Uvila signed with Pierce College in Puyallup intending to remain an infielder.
“My junior college coach tells the story that when I tried out my best fastball as a high school senior was 78 MPH,” Uvila said.
Uvila was going through a redshirt season as a freshman when an opportunity arose.
“I was redshirting because I straight up wasn’t good enough [to play shortstop],” Uvila said.
“The opportunity came up, they needed somebody who could throw. I burned my redshirt, started pitching submarine style, really low sidearm, and they realized I could put a little heat on the ball.”
A little heat is right. Uvila said at first he was clocking a good-but-not great 85 MPH.
“When I had 0-2 counts on batters with nobody on base I would quick pitch and I think I was hitting 85,” Uvila said.
“We changed to a normal arm slot [delivery], I threw hard and then pitched my whole sophomore season like that.”
On to Division I
Uvila was excellent on the mound his sophomore season at Pierce, posting a 1.77 ERA and a 5-2 record as a starter, and signed to play for NCAA Division I Georgia State in Atlanta.
After what he called a “pretty average junior year,” Uvila was off to a fast start as a senior before he heard a pop.
“It was some bad timing,” Uvila said. “Senior year, I was our friday night starter, our No. 1 pitcher.”
Uvila made three starts in 2016 and was dealing — a 0.90 ERA in 20 innings, a 22 to 4 strikeout to walk ratio.
Major League scouts had gotten the scent and were interested in taking him in the 2016 draft.
“I threw 110 pitches against Minnesota over the weekend and then was going to throw my midweek bullpen [session],” Uvila said.
Bullpens are throwing sessions that are used to help pitchers work on control, command and pitch selection using various intensities in advance of their next start.
“The scout [Texas Rangers’ Tenneesee and Georgia area scout Derrick Tucker] wanted to watch my bullpen and so I let it eat [threw as hard as he could]. I was trying to get drafted as a senior, so I went for it.”
And his elbow, particularly his right UCL, went with it.
“It was a complete tear of the UCL,” Uvila said.
Uvila soon underwent Tommy John surgery, a graft procedure in which a torn ligament is replaced by a healthy tendon that is then threaded through holes drilled into the bone above and below the elbow. It was a staggering breakthrough in sports medicine back in the 1970s and has allowed numerous pitchers a chance to restart their careers.
With NCAA rules allowing players five years to play four seasons, Uvila faced a decision — apply for a medical redshirt and attempt to return to pitching for Georga State sooner than doctors advised or go through a full rehabilitation program and begin again.
“I was looking at coming back in eight to nine months, or taking time off and coming back as a 23-24 year old, which was the best thing for my health. So I didnt throw a baseball for 18 months.”
He rehabbed and built back his arm strength at Driveline and eventually Uvila said goodbye to Georgia State and hello to Georgia Gwinnett College, an emerging NAIA powerhouse.
“The Georgia Gwinnett opportunity came up, the chance to start a new chapter in my baseball career and it’s been the best decision I made in my life,” Uvila said.
Uvila said he struggled in returning to live game situations at the beginning of his season and transitioned into a long relief role for Gwinnett, which won 50 games and recently reached the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho.
“Before my surgery I was throwing in the low 90s [MPH ], 90-93,” Uvila said. “After my surgery my first few months with Georgia Gwinnett and they moved me to bullpen and I was hitting 94 to 96 consistently and at the NAIA World Series I touched 98, so that was a big part of it [getting drafted].
And Uvila’s persistence paid off even if there were dark moments when doubt crept in and nearly changed his mind on returning to the game.
“My mom [Denise who died of cancer when Cole was just 13] definitely taught me everything happens for a reason,” Uvila said.
“If I was drafted as a 21 year old junior or senior I just wasn’t ready as a person [for the responsibilities].
“Coming back home, taking a year off, it showed me how much I love baseball.”
Cole’s dad Steve also earned praise for keeping him going through those rough patches while rehabbing his arm.
“Without him, this wasn’t possible,” Uvila said. “He always believed in me even when at times I didn’t. He always supported me to chase my dream. He’s the biggest piece to this puzzle.”
And Uvila is ready to get back home, get a hug from his dad and take off to continue blazing his own unique, trail in the sport he loves.
“I hope if people read about my story the take away is I never quit, I never gave up and I found a way to beat the odds as a 24-year old, Tommy John pitcher.
“Today makes everything worth it.”
Sports reporter/columnist Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]