‘A Hilltopper through and through’: Michael Darrell-Hicks returns to WKU pitching rotation after UCL tear

Redshirt junior pitcher Michael Darrell-Hicks (15) delivers a pitch against Wright State on Feb. 21, 2020 at Nick Denes Field.

Nick Kieser

The afternoon of Feb. 15 featured temperatures in the high 40s, and the sun intermittently brightened what was otherwise a partly cloudy day at Nick Denes Field. To the 507 fans in attendance, the weather was perfect for baseball, even if that wasn’t true just days before.

Redshirt junior pitcher Michael Darrell-Hicks was slated to be the opening day starter for the WKU baseball team against Valparaiso on Feb. 14, but the Hilltoppers’ first game of the 2020 campaign was pushed back a single day due to projected inclement weather in the area.

The original season opener would have marked 561 days between starts for the right-hander, so increasing the number of days since he last stepped onto the mound for a start to 562 wasn’t exactly make-or-break territory for Darrell-Hicks. His time was still coming, and he knew it.

When the weather cooperated and the time was finally right for the Hilltoppers and Crusaders to square off on the diamond, Darrell-Hicks strolled up to the mound for pregame warmups as his selected hype song, “Back On” by Lil Baby, blasted over the stadium’s loudspeakers. 

As the Bowling Green native delivered his razor-sharp warmup pitches, an understandably anxious — yet clearly formidable — Darrell-Hicks was poised to pick up right where he’d left off.

“I wasn’t nervous, but I was just thinking of how hard I worked and what if it didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Darrell-Hicks said. “I just wanted to see what I had and just went out there.”

‘I knew what it was’

After leading WKU with a 12.9 K/9 rate (31 strikeouts in 21.1 innings) as a sophomore in 2018, Darrell-Hicks spent the subsequent offseason playing for the Southern Ohio Copperheads of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.

He had tremendous success with the Copperheads, being named as a First Team All-GLSCL pitcher and starting the league’s all-star game in July 2018.

Darrell-Hicks had already logged 3.1 more innings of work against the Hamilton Joes on Aug. 2, 2018, but he knew his outing was over after throwing a pitch in the top of the fourth inning.

“I felt a pop in my elbow, and I knew what it was,” Darrell-Hicks said. He feared he’d torn his ulnar collateral ligament, and his intuition proved to be accurate.

After the conclusion of a 5-3 win for Southern Ohio, Darrell-Hicks contacted his family to fill them in on what had just taken place. The next number he dialed belonged to redshirt junior pitcher Bailey Sutton, a WKU teammate and one of Darrell-Hicks’ closest friends.

“When he got hurt, he called me that night and he was like, ‘Yeah, I threw and I felt a pop and I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to get it checked on,’” Sutton, who at the time was recovering from a partially torn UCL that forced him to miss the entire 2018 season, said.

Once family and friends were notified, Darrell-Hicks’ final call was to the Hill. WKU baseball head coach John Pawlowski and Dustin Wilson, an associate athletic trainer who primarily works with the Hilltopper baseball program, were then briefed on the unfortunate injury.

“You hate to hear those things,” Pawlowski said. “I told him that you have to go through the process, and you can’t speed it up.”

Recovery

Once Darrell-Hicks had his right elbow operated on, the rehabilitation process started very shortly thereafter. Darrell-Hicks said he worked with Wilson every day for “four to five months,” stretching himself beyond his comfort zone as the physical therapy wore on.

“Dustin made sure my arm was stretched every day and made sure everything was going OK,” Darrell-Hicks said. “He scheduled live batters for me to face too.”

Throughout Darrell-Hicks’ grueling and repetitive recovery schedule, his teammates were there alongside him, watching him progress day-by-day. Sutton knew what it was like to go through a UCL injury, which made him an asset to Darrell-Hicks.

“I felt like I was just there to support him and feed him some positive energy,” Sutton said. “Any little tweak you have in your arm feels more significant than it used to feel. It’s a lot more to get over it in your head than it is arm-wise.”

As much as he possibly could, Darrell-Hicks tried to keep himself plugged in as a key member of the Hilltoppers’ clubhouse. Darrell-Hicks said he was in attendance at every home game, and he and his adoptive father Bart Darrell also travelled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to watch WKU play in the 2019 Conference USA Tournament.

“Although he couldn’t pitch, he was still a big part of our team,” Pawlowski said. “He was there to support his teammates — physically, emotionally, spiritually. It was an important piece as to him coming back even stronger than he was before.”

Eight months into recovery, Darrell-Hicks began to throw again and faced teammates before or after practices. He faced whomever Wilson scheduled, taking each pitch one by one and hoping that nothing would go amiss while regaining his form and strength.

“It was more of a nervous factor,” Darrell-Hicks said. “At first I was facing guys like Kevin [Lambert] and a bunch of the older guys. I could only throw fastballs and changeups — I was going like 75% and just hoping nothing would come back at me.”

As Darrell-Hicks invested more time into throwing, he was able to mature and even perfected a “pretty good” changeup pitch he didn’t previously have in his repertoire.

“The goal was to get back to where I was before I got hurt,” Darrell-Hicks said. “Then, I wanted to take a step and add velocity to my pitches and get in better shape.”

Hometown kid

Darrell-Hicks started playing T-ball at 3 years old, sparking a passion that has continued to blossom. He has consistently embraced the grind of baseball, which has allowed him to evolve into a 6-foot-5-inch prospect with a bright future.

Darrell-Hicks played under head coach Chris Gage at South Warren High School, earning the nickname “Big Nasty” during his four-year tenure.

Gage placed Darrell-Hicks on the junior varsity team to begin his prep career, but he put the eventual star pitcher into a varsity game as a freshman. Although Darrell-Hicks was initially surprised he belonged on a varsity mound, Gage said he eventually realized his potential.

“I saw early on in his high school days how good of a player he could be,” Gage said. “The biggest thing was for him to realize how good he was and how good he could be.”

“To watch somebody who didn’t believe in themself until they realized it was quite different,” Gage continued. “He had a whole different attitude his junior and senior year. The nickname ‘Big Nasty’ came up because we wanted him to see how good he could be.”

Darrell-Hicks racked up 92 strikeouts in 82.2 innings as a senior, going 9-4 with a 1.44 ERA and confirming his readiness for college baseball. Now, the sky’s the limit, Gage said.

“Michael’s ceiling is incredibly high, and it’s probably the highest we’ve had come out of here,” Gage said. “He had a work ethic that you wouldn’t see out of most high school kids.”

Pawlowski said he’s assessed what skills Darrell-Hicks must refine in order to reach the next level during his time at WKU, noting strides in many areas, particularly his “maturity.”

“I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of where he’s going to be,” Pawlowski said. “He’s one of the most passionate people, and he is a Hilltopper through and through.”

Cloud nine

As the 2020 season approached, Darrell-Hicks was far from guaranteed to be the pitcher getting the ball on opening day for the Hilltoppers.

Pawlowski said his plan was to see how Darrell-Hicks progressed during the practices leading up to the season opener. After Darrell-Hicks was deemed ready to go, the WKU skipper said his job became bringing Darrell-Hicks down from the clouds after telling him he’d have the ball.

“You never know what you’ll get in that first start back,” Pawlowski said.

Darrell-Hicks was extremely happy as he trotted out to the mound because he knew what he’d get — no more of the same old WKU batters. Valpo players would soon be coming up to the plate to face him, which meant his work would be for real this time.

Sutton watched intently as his friend warmed up for his season debut, and he said Darrell-Hicks’ impending return made him feel anxious the same way his own appearances do.

“I was more nervous for him than maybe he was for himself,” Sutton said. “I was super pumped for him. I was sitting there nervous like how a parent is for their kid.”

Darrell-Hicks looked just like his old self after sitting out the entire 2019 season, earning a win over the Crusaders after allowing just one hit and no runs. The strikeout machine also fanned eight Valpo batters in just 5.0 innings of work.

“I thought he did outstanding,” Pawlowski said. “To be able to get back on the field and compete, it’s a great feeling knowing the time and effort he put into it. Seeing him stand on the mound and deliver that first pitch was pretty special.”

After Darrell-Hicks exited the game in the fifth inning, the 22-year-old was welcomed back to the dugout by his teammates for the first time since his sophomore campaign.

As of Feb. 28, Darrell-Hicks (1-1) has accumulated 13.2 innings pitched in three appearances, allowing eight hits, seven earned runs and nine walks while striking out 14 batters. He has a 4.61 ERA with a 1.29 WHIP, both encouraging marks for the returning Darrell-Hicks.

“My approach in-game is that I’m better than any batter that I’ll face,” Darrell-Hicks said. “Before a pitch, I think to myself that this guy can’t hit me, and in between I just like to have fun and maybe smile a little bit.”

Reporter Nick Kieser can be reached at [email protected] Follow Nick on Twitter at @KieserNick.