Shouldering the load
Pulido stronger than ever after labrum surgery
It was a long, tiring weekend for Ashley Pulido.
Four games over two days, 346 pitches — very long and tiring — but the Colorado Mesa University senior softball pitcher finished it with a three-hit, 8-0 shutout over Regis.
The Mavs were down a pitcher, so Pulido pitched in all four games the final weekend of March. As a result, her right arm and shoulder saw more ice time than a hockey puck.
But there was a good feeling, too, in that tired arm. It endured a challenge it couldn’t have handled in previous seasons.
A year ago, Pulido was coming off shoulder surgery after a pain-filled sophomore season.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” Pulido said about her right arm and shoulder. “They thought it was biceps tendinitis.”
It wasn’t. And the pain, although not severe for an underhand pitching motion, didn’t disappear. It lingered into the summer of 2012, so she went to a doctor, and they discovered she had a torn labrum.
A torn labrum? Isn’t that the common injury for baseball pitchers?
“It’s pretty rare for a softball pitcher,” Pulido said, smiling.
She had surgery, then after months of physical therapy, she returned to the Mavs for the final six weeks of her junior year.
Now, her healthy right arm is shining in her final season.
Pulido was excited for her senior year, but she never thought perfection would be part of it.
Yet, on March 15 against New Mexico Highlands, the Ojai, Calif., native threw a perfect game.
“It was amazing, I’d never done that before,” she said.
More amazing was her conversation with teammate Lindsay Drayer before the game.
“She asked me if I’d ever thrown a perfect game before,” Pulido said. “It was really weird.”
As the game progressed, the pressure increased.
“That made it ever harder. I told myself I can’t screw this up,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe just one little hit won’t be bad. A one-hitter will be OK.’
“Then, the last couple of outs, I started thinking, ‘This is a perfect game. I have to finish this.’ “
After her 62nd pitch, the 9-0 perfect game was in the books.
After her 346-pitch weekend, where perfection was nowhere in sight, Pulido had to be on top of her mental game.
She admits she wasn’t always a mentally tough pitcher.
“It definitely wasn’t there my freshman year, but I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” she said.
Being stuck on the bench and forced into a cheerleader role after surgery even helped.
“Sitting on the bench and learning the game from a different perspective is tough, but you learn a lot about the game,” she said. “And you learn how to prepare yourself to go into the game because you sit there for three months, and you’re like, ‘I want to go in!’ “
Determined to return
Pulido’s determination impressed CMU coach Candace Abrams.
“Having major surgery like that, it’s a big mental battle, and it can go one of two ways,” Abrams said. “But she has a lot of guts and a lot of perseverance, and it’s been great to see her work hard and come back.
“She’s battled a lot, and mentally you have to be strong, and she’s come back so much stronger both physically and mentally.”
Mental toughness is everything to a pitcher. Hits, runs, walks, errors — adversity lurks with virtually every pitch.
Pulido has a saying written on her glove that helps keep her focused: “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.”
“I just repeat that in my head,” she said. “I can only do something about one pitch. I can only change that one pitch, and it takes every single pitch to be successful. Softball is a mental game. You’re always going to have things (go wrong). You just have to put it behind you, and you can’t dwell on the last batter.”
There was plenty of adversity in most of her 346-pitch weekend, and CMU lost three of the four games, but she gutted it out and kept repeating, “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.”
Creative physical therapy
As a softball pitcher with a baseball pitcher’s injury, there was a big challenge.
“It was tough for rehab because it’s so rare for a softball pitcher,” she said. “They had to learn how to rehab the injury.”
Physical therapist Sean Richardson of Western Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, said her labrum tear was rare for any kind of pitcher, so he researched it and put together a plan.
“(There were) enough (cases) to educate me on mechanics and strength needed to return her to her sport and not reinjure her shoulder,” he said,
Richardson also got creative to prevent rehab from getting boring and to challenge muscles and joints in a variety of ways.
Pulido said it was never boring and rarely easy.
“They were throwing all kinds of stuff together to make me stronger and to push me,” she said.
There was one creative exercise that Pulido said worked really well — and she “hated it.”
In the pushup position, she would put her hands on the pedals of an elliptical machine and start pedaling with her hands.
“It was so tough,” she said, “but it made me stronger.”
Richardson said only a few are punished with that exercise, only those patients he feels are strong enough to handle it.
Pulido met the challenge, and CMU is reaping the rewards in her final season.
Whether it’s only 62 pitches for a perfect game or a gutsy 346-pitch performance over a weekend, Pulido can handle it.