“Yeah… I’m locked in here.”
When Denson Hull took the mound for the first time this season against Kansas State in early March, there was something lingering in the back of his mind. It wasn’t the atmosphere in Manhattan. It wasn’t the return to D1 competition. It wasn’t the overwhelming pressure of keeping a 3 run lead in a midweek ballgame.
It was his mind sprinkled with doubt about whether his knee would hold up as he tossed the white pearl 60.6’ to home.
Earlier in the year, during a routine bullpen session, Hull suddenly felt a tinge of pain and after an MRI revealed a meniscus tear, the junior southpaw from San Antonio was dealt a setback as a Bluejay before his tenure officially started.
Hull had been hyped as a potential Sunday starter, with most of that hype stemming from his head coach in Ed Servais. Servais mentioned Hull any opportunity he could, knowing that the golden arm of this Texas kid could round out an untested rotation.
Yet before he knew it, Hull was on the slow and painstaking journey to recovery.
“It was really quick,” Hull said of his surgery, “When I got it on a Thursday, I was on crutches, weight bear on it, but they didn’t want me doing a whole lot at first. So I was on crutches all weekend, and then I was walking on it by Monday but it was still stiff because I just had surgery a couple days earlier, but I would do a lot of rehab stuff and stretching, ‘cause a (torn) meniscus isn’t that serious of an injury.”
With the Creighton starters marching blindly into the void without Hull, Ryan Tapani, Preston Church, and Ryan Connolly have tried their damndest to get things to the bullpen before the games got out of hand.
Tapani has fared exceedingly well up until this point, starting in six games, holding a 1.49 ERA, while allowing opposing batters to hit just .241 off of him, a far cry from where he was at this point last year.
Preston ‘The Holy King of Anthills’ Church produced his best outing in a win against Nebraska on Tuesday, yet struggled quite a bit previous with an ERA ballooning over 12.
Connolly, the starter for two Sunday affairs that went way south, holds a 9.90 ERA in 10 innings pitched over his two starts and two relief appearances, allowing 11 earned while the opposing team has decimated him to the tune of a .356 batting average.
Hull, who spent his freshman year at Incarnate Word coming out of the bullpen, found himself at Temple Junior College in Temple, Texas the following year. There he compiled a 5-4 record over 13 starts, adorned with a 3.99 ERA, 55 strikeouts, and an impressive 8.44 K/9. If anyone was going to be the missing link to this mess of a rotation, Denson Hull was more than qualified to be that guy, if not stand out himself.
So there he was, weeks after tearing his meniscus, standing on the mound in relief during a midweek game at Kansas State, his first ever appearance as a Bluejay, with a chance to get an inning in to see if that knee could hold up.
“It was pretty nerve racking, honestly, because in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Is it going to hold up? Is it still stable?” There’s those doubts that kind of creep in.”
Coming in to relieve Evan Johnson with two outs in a 5-2 ballgame, Hull fired a strike over the plate. His next two pitches were a bit out of the zone. His fourth pitch was lined to Jack Strunc. For a moment, Hull could relax in the dugout. Breathe a bit.
Hull was able to watch Ryan Mantle hit a homerun while in the dugout as the Jays extended their lead to four at 6-2. When he re-entered the game, he got a ground out to Isaac Collins after six pitches, then allowed a single up the middle. Hull then sailed a pickoff attempt to first, allowing the baserunner to take second, then got a groundout two pitches later.
The next time Hull got a chance in a real game situation was in the second game against Wichita State. He faced just one batter, forcing yet another ground out, in a LOOGY-type situation. His come-up, though advancing slowly, was clearly moving in the right direction.
“I’m starting to feel like a baseball player again.”
A few days after the Wichita series, the boys in blue loaded up on a bus to Normal, Illinois for a three game set against Illinois State. About halfway through the trip through rural Iowa, Denson Hull stood, walked to the back of the bus, and opened the door to a small, cramped restroom that the bus service provided.
Through all of the injuries that nagged him, through the slow recovery back to the mound, to the doubt and worry as he threw that first pitch in Manhattan, Denson Hull had met his biggest challenge: the lock on the bathroom door.
“At first I thought I was looking at it wrong and wasn’t opening the latch right or something. When I figured out that it wouldn’t open I was like, “Crap. What’s going on here?” I couldn’t figure it out.”
For about a half hour Hull was locked in the bathroom of a charter bus. During this time, Hull occupied himself with a livestream of his imprisonment on Instagram, ate cookies fed to him by the small opening between himself and the rest of his teammates, and even had a charger fed through the door so he could keep himself entertained as a situation turned from tragic to bizarre. Hull, fortunately, kept his wits about him.
“It wasn’t that bad, honestly, a lot of people were like, “Didn’t you get claustrophobic or something?” And I mean, it really wasn’t that bad, it was honestly kind of fun.”
When the bus driver, a 22 year old woman who had a 6 month old baby at home, was notified of the situation, she pulled over onto an off ramp and assessed what this Jesuit college student had gotten himself into. After a failed phone call to corporate on the logical next step, she decided to pull into a nearby Casey’s gas station.
It was here that a plan began to form. It was time to break free.
“When I first got locked in, I figured could easily break out of this, the door is not that strong, but I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to damage the bus. When the bus driver came back and tried to unlock it or figure out what was wrong, she couldn’t. I was just like, “I could easily bust out of this right now and we’d be done with it.”
That’s when the wisdom of a weathered veteran like Coach Ed Servais began to shine through the cracks.
“Someone told me Coach Servais was like, “Just do it, it’s not your fault you got locked in the bathroom,” so I just busted out of it.”
“It was funny because it happened to me, of all people.”
There’s something truly poetic about this. The fact that Hull, who missed the first portion of the season because of knee surgery, who’s slowly working his way to the point where Coach Servais will tell him that he’s going to get a start, was trapped in a bathroom, refusing to break down the door thinking he’d do further damage, only for Coach Servais to tell him to break free.
I don’t know.
It really feels poetic, don’t you think?