Considering his injury history — two “Tommy John” elbow surgeries in high school plus assorted other ailments in college — Trey Ziegenbein seems an unlikely choice as the busiest pitcher in Missouri State’s 60-season baseball history.
But there was the senior right-hander, marching to the mound for the 93rd time in his college career Tuesday night as the Bears took on Arkansas at Hammons Field. Ziegenbein turned in three hitless innings in an 8-4 victory over the No. 6-ranked Razorbacks in front of 2,780 fans.
Ziegenbein smiled after a recent relief appearance about his admittedly unlikely durability in a Missouri State uniform, which has included only one start — in last year’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament when no one else was available to take the ball.
The right-hander from Blue Springs was more than willing. He always is.
“Trey is going to do anything and everything to help the team,” Bears coach Keith Guttin said. “That’s who he is.”
Things haven’t been easy for Ziegenbein
It hasn’t always been easy. But Ziegenbein, who surpassed Bryan Young’s 89 appearances (2014-17) two weeks ago at Illinois-Chicago, is able to bask in the triumph of overcoming the odds like few in his position could.
“As someone who’s had injury troubles in the past, you don’t really see yourself making it that long,” Ziegenbein said of his college career. “It seems like when you pitch 30 times a year, things start to break down a little bit, but I’ve been able to come through it and seemed to have aged like fine wine, as some would say.”
The college career almost didn’t happen. Elbow injuries derailed his final two seasons in high school. He underwent ligament transplant surgery before his junior season and again on April 20th of his senior season after re-rupturing the tendon in his return game. Ziegenbein admitted to asking himself at the time whether he wanted to go through another surgery and lengthy rehab.
“You’re like, ‘Man, I don’t know about doing the second one. I’m only 18 years old,’” he said. “But you do it and you’re glad you did.”
Pitching on April 20 is fun
Last Thursday, on the sixth anniversary of his second surgery, Ziegenbein pitched two innings to close a victory over Belmont. April 20 is a special date for him and pitching on that day is sweet.
“It’s always a fun date that I mark on the calendar to show how far I’ve come,” Ziegenbein said. “To overcome and continue to do it for as long as you have, it’s fun to pitch every year on that day.”
Teammates, especially those who have been in the program as long as Ziegenbein, appreciate and admire him for his perseverance and success.
“We have a lot of respect for him,” senior infielder Mason Hull said. “He’s a great teammate. Every time he comes in, he gives us a calming presence. He competes his butt off every day, no matter what.”
Becoming MSU’s ‘swing man’ out of the bullpen
Ziegenbein has pitched in a variety of bullpen roles at Missouri State after starting in his lone season at Johnson County Community College in Kansas City, Kansas. He said coaches presented him with the “swing man” role that many former Bears had succeeded in over the years and he was eager to take it on.
“Whenever you’re a kid, you want to go to college and become the Friday night starter,” he said. “But the opportunity I’ve had to come out of the bullpen two, three or even four times a week…it’s really cool.”
A key has been coming to the ballpark mentally ready, believing he was going to pitch each game day.
“If you come to the field at 7 a.m. (for an 11 a.m. game) telling yourself, ‘I can’t play,’ then if you do have to pitch it’s not going to go well for you,” Ziegenbein said. “But if you’re ready all the time — and if you are a little sore you have to get that taken care of. You’ve just got to pitch.”
While he’s saved only three games in his career, Zidgenbein often has been used in the middle innings during a pivotal part of the game. That happened again against Arkansas, when Ziegenbein came on in the fourth after the Bears had just taken the lead.
Ziegenbein retired all nine Hogs he faced, striking out three. He needed only 39 pitches in his three innings as the Bears extended the lead to 8-2 when he departed.
“He’s been very good and executing very well,” said catcher Anthony Socci. “Every day Trey. You know he’s going to go out and compete every time.”
Relying on smarts as much as stuff
Using a variety of off-speed deliveries and pinpoint control, Ziegenbein had the Razorbacks off balance, lowering his season earned run average to 4.14, with only three runs allowed over his last 19 ⅔ innings. You would never have known — unless you had been tipped off — that Ziegenbein’s pitching shoulder flared up with soreness recently.
The discomfort remains, but he’s adjusted and keeps on keeping on, relying on smarts as much as stuff.
“Whenever I first got here I was mainly a sinker, slider guy,” he said. “Then once the report was out that I threw 75 percent sliders, you have to make an adjustment. I wouldn’t say I’ve made an adjustment for arm health, but with our tools here like (pitching coach Nick) Petree and coach (Paul) Evans prior to that, we have all the tools to succeed.
“I have a cutter, changeup, curveball and slider now, and a fastball and sinker that I had before. I’ve developed over the last four years and it’s been a pretty cool process.”
Ready for life after baseball
It’s not like the coaches are asking him to put a professional career in jeopardy by using him. Ziegenbein knows that when the season ends, be it at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament or in postseason play, he will be satisfied with the outcome.
Already with a construction management degree, Ziegenbein has a job lined up back in his home area after he throws his final pitch.
“I’ve got to put my body and my mentals before chasing this dream that I thought that I had,” Ziegenbein said. “You start to prioritize different things, like family. You want to move back and be closer to them and think about having your own family. I have a great girlfriend. Those things start to become more of a priority than chasing a ball.
“I’ve accepted a job in Olathe (Kansas) and me and the woman and our two cats are going to move to downtown KC once I’m done. I’ve had a really good time here. I’m content with what I’ve got.”
Missouri State (23-16) beat Arkansas (30-11) for the second straight season. The Bears, winners of 10 of their last 12, are scheduled to play host to Valparaiso for a Missouri Valley Conference series with games at 6:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.