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Injuries can be one of the toughest things to handle for an athlete. However, overcoming a serious injury and exceeding the level that you were once at can be all the more sweeter. In his redshirt-junior season, Tom Stoffel has fully recovered from a back injury and been the centerpiece of a powerful Virginia Tech offense.
Stoffel came to Blacksburg and played an integral role in his freshman season, starting 24 games in right field and batting .290. Then came the most difficult circumstance in Stoffel’s baseball career. Leading up to his sophomore season, Stoffel experienced a pain in his back that wouldn’t go away.
“It was like two weeks before sophomore season, we didn’t really pinpoint it to anything, but I was just hitting and felt a little something in my back,” said Stoffel. “Didn’t know what it really was at first. I thought it was just a muscular thing, and I just kept trying to play through it. I was able to pitch with it, but I couldn’t hit. It hurt too bad hitting. I got the MRI and stuff like that. Came back and it was a stress fracture in my back, L5 I believe.”
A back injury for any athlete leads to a lot of unanswered questions and an uncertain recovery time. For Stoffel, that was exactly the case.
“For one, you don’t want to see any of your guys get hurt ever,” head coach Pat Mason said. “There’s different types of injuries. When you’re dealing with a back injury, there’s a lot of gray area with back injuries and how severe his was. Rest was the best medicine for him. You don’t know if or how it’s going to heal. Surgery route for him was not really a good option for him in terms of trying to play baseball again. It was challenging, it was touch and go. A lot of trial and error. In terms of his development, I think he’s right on pace now. You see last year, again that injury lingered for the whole year. He was a game time decision almost the whole season. Now two years removed from it, he’s able to play every night, take BP every night, take BP during practice, and do everything normal. Now you’re starting to see where his talent level is.”
While sitting out in 2015 with the back injury was a frustrating time, the Dayton, Ohio native used it as an opportunity to expand his baseball knowledge and pay attention to parts of the game that the average player wouldn’t notice.
“It’s hard,” said Stoffel. “I haven’t had to not play baseball since I was like two years old, so obviously it was an adjustment. I think it definitely gives you a greater appreciation being able to play now. I definitely learned more than I ever learned in my life by getting to sit back and watch the game from a different view from being in the game. It helped a lot in my development, too. It wasn’t all bad, but it’s awesome being able to play now.
“Pitch sequences, getting your situational stuff down. Just seeing how the team reacts to certain situations. I know this year, a specific example is a guy on third, making sure you get that run in. Don’t strike out, just move the ball, stuff like that. Pitch sequences is a big thing. What are they throwing first pitch? What are they striking you out with? Things like that.”
Now that Stoffel is 100 percent healthy, his offensive numbers have jumped off the board. He’s currently hitting .345 with six home runs while slugging .559. The redshirt-junior has driven in 43 runs (seventh in ACC) and collected 16 doubles (fourth in the ACC) from the three-hole in the lineup.
“Definitely the health is the biggest component,” Mason said. “Even when he felt good last year, he may not have been able to take BP during the week. So just timing wise, his swing may have been fine, but the timing and the reps and seeing pitches. Just adjusting from pitch to pitch and letting your instincts play. Those things fell off the table a little bit when you’re not practicing consistently and playing consistently. Physically, he’s driving balls a little better. His freshman year he was really accomplished at knowing what the strike zone was. Kind of taking what was given to him from the pitcher. In other words, if they threw a fastball away, just kind of slap it to left field and take a single. That’s a good way to live as a freshman. Until you start getting a little more comfortable and driving balls, now it’s that same pitch and he can maybe try to drive it in the gap or even drive it over the fence. He’s had a couple opposite field home runs. So that’s the progression, just being a little more confident with his power.”
“He’s knows how to handle the bat. We got runners in scoring position, if you look at the biggest differences from our team last year and this year, look at the runs scored by Jack [Owens] and Ryan [Tufts]. I think Tommy is 18 for 18 with a runner on third and less than two outs and getting that run in. It’s almost money in the bank when there’s a runner on third.”
Mason recounted the stories he heard from Stoffel while he was in his summer league in the Boston area. Stoffel would run around in the stands wearing the mascot head to raise money for the organization. His light hearted attitude and sense of humor off the field plays a contrast to the quiet confidence that Stoffel carries between the lines.
“He is all business on the field,” said Mason. “He’s extremely cerebral. He’s a sponge. There isn’t anything that happens that he doesn’t absorb. Whether it’s an opponent who comes in, how they’re pitching, what they’re doing first pitch, how they’re finishing guys, what his arm slot is. All the intricacies to the game of baseball, he’s locked in on all the time. It’s one thing to notice it, it’s another thing to use it to your advantage and he’s able to do that.”
Recruited as a pitcher, Stoffel hadn’t seen any action on the mound until this year. Now he plays an integral part in the bullpen. Stoffel provides a trusted lefty arm that can be counted on in the late innings. In fact, he picked up the save in the 7-5 win over Virginia on April 15 and has compiled a 3.27 earned run average in seven appearances.
“He’s a bonafide two-way guy right now,” said Mason. “The presence that he has in the batter’s box translates to the mound. Just controlling the running game, the game is really slow for him. Everything is very natural for him because he’s very confident. His stuff is good obviously, but he’s very confident as well. For someone who hasn’t pitched a whole lot of innings, he can pitch on both sides of the plate. He can pitch in any count and really do anything we need him to do.”
“I think being a two-way player makes you understand the full game,” Stoffel said. “Obviously you know what it’s like being a hitter, so you know what counts you don’t like to hit in, what pitches, stuff like that. It’s easy to twist it and apply it as a strength.”
Through the entire process, Stoffel has kept the faith and reaped the benefits this season.
“I love being able to play this game,” Stoffel said. “It’s a blessing to be able to play it every day. You don’t want to take it for granted. Obviously being a redshirt junior, the time could be up soon. Even that gives you a perspective of not being able to play. It makes you value every single day you’re out here and every day you have left.”
With full health, a new outlook on the game, and an unquestioned confidence at the plate and on the mound, Stoffel will continue to lead the Virginia Tech towards the final stretch of the season.