COLUMN: Perkins’ injury a crippling blow to Toppers

Brad Stephens

One of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen by a WKU athlete came from Tanner Perkins last March.

The then-sophomore left-hander took the mound against Illinois on the Friday of spring break and pitched nine innings of brilliant baseball.

Perkins retired 21 straight batters between the second and eighth innings on his way to a three-hit, one-run complete game.

Perkins’ 90-pitch performance led WKU to a 3-1 win in a game that lasted a mere one hour and 39 minutes.

The outing showed the potential of the kid from Brodhead, and showed that he had the potential to replace Matt Ridings as WKU’s next ace.

Here was a guy that could give you at least seven solid innings every Friday night and a chance to win the first game of each series while allowing a coach to save his best relievers for later in the weekend.

But unfortunately for the Toppers, WKU won’t have his services until 2013.

WKU confirmed on Friday that Perkins tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow early last month and that he’ll miss the rest of this season.

Perkins, a 2012 Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference Team member, will undergo Tommy John surgery later in the week.

The typical timeframe for return to play after the surgery is one year, meaning the most realistic target for Perkins’ return to baseball would likely be early in the 2013 season.

A season-ending injury for arguably the Toppers’ best player is the kind of break a 12-16 team didn’t need.

WKU has already dealt with various injuries this season in its rotation, as sophomore right-hander Justin Hageman and junior left-hander Tim Bado both missed starts early in the year.

“We’re not healthy on the mound. We haven’t been all year,” Head Coach Matt Myers said on Wednesday, two days before Perkins’ official diagnosis was released. “When your No.1 pitcher’s not pitching for you in the conference, that makes a big difference.”

To their credit, the players aren’t using the loss of Perkins as an excuse.

“Tanner’s one of the best arms in the Sun Belt,” senior third baseman Casey Dykes said. “Losing him is a big loss, but it’s not something we’re going to hang our head about.”

Hageman said, “It’s just something you’ve got to accept. Let him get better and get him healthy back doing what he needs to do.”

For Perkins, expect a full recovery and for him to be pitching next year, either at WKU or professionally.

Ridings, now a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals’ minor league system, underwent the same operation after tearing his UCL in 2010, during his senior year at WKU.

“It’ll wear at you a little bit mentally knowing all your friends are out there playing the game you love,” said Ridings, WKU’s all-time leader in wins. “…But he’s a tough kid, and he’ll have no problem getting through the rehabbing and recovering.”

As for the team, one has to wonder if the Toppers’ chances for making the Sun Belt Tournament, which it hosts this year at Bowling Green Ballpark, are in danger.

WKU sits sixth in a league where just the top eight teams make the league tournament.

And life doesn’t get any easier for the Toppers, who go on the road for the next three weeks.

It’s the kind of stretch where they need a guy like Perkins who can eat innings, keep a bullpen fresh and win each series opener.

But, unfortunately, WKU won’t have that guy.