The last time Corey Williams stepped onto the mound against Florida, the Vanderbilt pitcher ended up being wheeled off the field.
This time around, Williams hopes his outing against the Gators is less eventful and less painful.
Williams and No. 1 Vanderbilt host No. 6 Florida in a three-game weekend series, which begins 6 p.m. Friday (CSS, Channel 27) at Hawkins Field.
It is not only a big national matchup but a huge Southeastern Conference series. Vanderbilt (41-6, 19-5) is first in the SEC with just six conference games remaining, while Florida (37-12, 18-6) is tied for second with defending national champion South Carolina.
For Williams, a redshirt sophomore, it is a reminder of a gruesome injury that he sustained more than a year ago. Pitching in relief at Florida, the lefty threw a curveball to the Gators’ Austin Maddox, who lined a shot right back toward Williams. As the ball came zipping toward him, Williams tried to put his glove in front to deflect the ball, which instead bounced off his right kneecap. Williams hit the ground in pain but noticed the baseball within his reach. With his back to first base and lying on his stomach, he picked the ball up and flipped it in that direction.
“After that is kind of a blur,” Williams said.
The ball reached first baseman Aaron Westlake, who came off the bag, scooped up the ball and tagged Maddox on the leg for the out.
“Coach [Tim] Corbin came up to me on the mound and told me I had got the guy out and I told him, ‘No way, I didn’t get him out. There is no way,’” Williams said. “I thought he was trying to tell me that to kind of help me to get my mind off my knee. Then I was getting carted off the field and I see there is one out on the board and thought maybe that I did.”
In no time, however, he became an Internet sensation.
The game was televised and quickly Vanderbilt uploaded the video feed to YouTube. Williams received national attention, drawing interviews from ESPN and, to date, the video has been viewed more than 469,000 times.
“I think it was because I made the play. I mean, if the ball just hits me and I don’t make the play, I don’t think the story is as cool,” Williams said. “I think that is what really got everybody’s attention. ... If you watch the play, [Westlake’s] play was pretty amazing too — being able to get it and tag the runner out in time.”
Quickly it became evident that Williams was seriously injured as he sprawled on the mound. Williams’ right kneecap had been shattered. He had season-ending surgery shortly thereafter, halting what was a promising first year as he had a 2.65 ERA in 12 relief appearances.
“When it first hit me, I think adrenaline kind of set in. But after I let go of the ball, it was shooting pain and I knew something was messed up with it,” Williams said.
The Huntsville, Ala., native spent the summer in Nashville, rehabbing at Vanderbilt and Hawkins Field. He focused on running first, to gain strength back in his right leg. He began to toss a baseball around shortly after surgery but didn’t seriously start to throw until the summer. He didn’t step back onto a pitching mound until October, six months after the injury.
Williams said he concentrated on working on his mechanics, grasping control of his fastball and regaining consistency in his pitching. Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson said Williams' comeback on the mound was a process and that even early in the spring, he “wasn’t great by any means.”
In 19 appearances this season — just one start — Williams (1-0) has a 5.00 ERA. In 27 innings pitched, he has allowed 21 hits and 11 walks but also has 28 strikeouts.
Williams has been better lately. He has developed a cutter this season, in addition to his already strong fastball, a curveball and a changeup. He picked up his second save of the season on Sunday in a win against Kentucky and pitched a hitless, scoreless inning of relief on Tuesday at Louisville.
“The last couple weeks, he has turned the corner to where he is at to where you maybe thought he would be and he is throwing the ball well,” Johnson said. “The one good part with Corey is I didn’t think there was any fear there. You didn’t see him walk out there and every time a ball was struck see him do this [motioning with his hands to his face]. There never seemed to be any of that. [The biggest adjustment] was probably being able to bear weight on [his leg] to get his mechanics back in line with what he had before and maybe he even adjusted a little off of that.”
Williams says he isn’t feeling any pain in his knee and after this season he will spend the summer pitching in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Yarmouth-Dennis (Mass.) Red Sox.
It is a huge opportunity for Williams, especially considering a year ago he was sprawled on the ground wondering if the worst had happened.
“I had my doubts [about returning to baseball] but [Vanderbilt athletic trainer] Chris Ham helped me get through the process,” Williams said. “I think that is what helped me go through the process, saying ‘I will pitch again. I will gain everything back and become better than I was.’”