Jake Latz finishes a wind sprint in right field before hoisting his glove, bending his left arm at a 90-degree angle and moving it back and forth, stimulating the left elbow that has triggered the hardest two years of his life.
Bullpen catcher Trent Forshag soon joins. They complete toe touches before moving to the bullpen, where Latz takes a few warmup tosses under pitching coach Alan Dunn’s supervision.
This will all mean more Wednesday, when Latz repeats this cycle before making his collegiate debut against Grambling at 6:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium. But on this day, a day before No. 2 Vanderbilt comes to town, Latz faced one final impediment in his sometimes-interminable road back to competition.
“It’s obviously the toughest thing I’ve ever had to experience in my entire life,” he said.
His 35-pitch simulated game drew an anxious assortment of onlookers. Director of baseball operations Micah Gibbs stood just behind the plate pointing a radar gun. The entire training staff — students and head trainer Cory Couture — tasked with rehabbing Latz’s surgically mended left elbow lined the dugout.
Hitting coach Andy Cannizaro encouraged the three hitters — Cody Ducote, Bryce Adams and Brody Wofford — as if it were an actual game. Dunn sat in a chair on the artificial turf surrounding the batter’s box.
Coach Paul Mainieri, his youngest son Tommy and volunteer assistant coach Nolan Cain ambled apprehensively as the prized left-hander faced live hitters for the first time since October.
“To see him take that trail from here to there was very exciting for me,” Dunn said, pointing from the dugout to the diamond. “It’s been a long time coming for him; I feel good for the kid being able to take that next step to go out in this process and go out and do that.”
Latz throws 15 pitches in the first “inning,” facing Adams, Wofford, Ducote and Adams again. The first two are balls. Ten of the next 13 are strikes, most tailing fastballs with substantial run.
“He spots up a lot on outside pitches and obviously lefty on lefty (is) going to be tougher than the righty,” said Wofford, a left-hander who grounded his only pitch in the first inning to a vacant shortstop. “(Latz’s fastball) kind of started off in the middle of the plate, ran outside for strikes, ran in. Just looked good all together.”
Latz began Ducote’s at-bat with a 79-mph changeup to which the junior-college transfer offered a feeble half-swing.
Adams’ second at-bat started with an 86-mph fastball that began in the middle of the plate and, by the time it was swung on and missed, had Forshag reaching outside to catch it.
“That thing was disgusting,” said Gibbs, a former Tigers catcher.
Mimicking a game, Latz retreats to the dugout after Adams’ second at-bat. He returns for a second inning, getting Wofford, Ducote, Wofford again, then Adams. He gets ahead 0-2 to all four hitters but struggles to put them away.
Curveball command is customarily the final facet to return for injured pitchers. It’s, perhaps, the only unsightly development of this 35-pitch outing, which left Latz physically fatigued but his arm pain-free.
“A good feeling of accomplishment,” Latz said. “It’s been a while, obviously, and it just felt normal to get out there again. I didn’t have any doubts or second thoughts; it just kind of came (second-nature) to me. Going out there just felt like I’ve been my whole life.”
This simulated game was created, in part, to accelerate Latz’s adrenaline. An empty stadium and defensive alignment toughened the task, but Mainieri was there to lend motivation.
He clapped his hands numerous times and, when Latz struggled to put hitters away in his second inning, reminded him of his shortcomings.
“Come on, Jake,” he said after Latz missed high with an 0-2 offering. “Get ahead, chance to put him away and you leave it up.”
Latz sat 88 to 90 mph with his fastball, and his changeup was anywhere from 79 to 82. Mainieri keenly watched all of Latz’s rehab and asked him to “cut it loose” to overcome the common trepidation injured pitchers face.
“It takes your mind off, ‘Wow, what am I going to feel like?’ ” Latz said of facing live hitters. “It gets you focused on ‘I need to throw a ball right there.’ The biggest thing for me has been trying to get my mental side back to where it was.”
Mainieri marveled at Latz’s performance. He said the game couldn’t have gone much better.
Latz kept the ball down near the bottom of the strike zone, satisfying Dunn, who was just ecstatic to see the southpaw — separated from his team while enduring a solitary, strenuous rehabilitation — prepared to help his team win.
“It’ll be more rewarding (Wednesday) when I see him pitching against someone in a different-colored jersey,” Mainieri added. “(Latz) decided to come to school and not sign professionally. I just want to see this work for him, and I want to see him help our team as well.
“I feel like we’re on the verge of seeing that happening.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome