Former GJ Rockie Nikorak slowly working way back from 2017 Tommy John surgery

Mike Nikorak gets ready to throw during a recent session in Boise, Idaho. Nikorak, a 2015 first-round pick of the Rockies, twice pitched for the Grand Junction Rockies and was moving up the organizational ladder when he injured his elbow. After having Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2017, Nikorak is building up arm strength and hopes to soon be able to throw off a mound for the first time in more than a year. COURTESY OF BOISE HAWKS

With Tommy John surgery, recovery and rehab can be painstakingly slow.

For Mike Nikorak, that part seemed to fly by. Days now are dragging as he inches closer to returning to the pitching mound for the first time in more than a year.

"I expected it to go slower, but to be honest ... with having other guys going through it, days tended to fly by, because we were doing what we were supposed to do," said Nikorak, the Colorado Rockies' first-round draft pick in 2015 who spent two years in Grand Junction.

"Also, we were in Arizona, so we weren't watching baseball. We were at the complex (at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale) doing what we needed to do. That's what our day consisted of.

"It's slowing down now a little bit just because I'm watching teammates play and I'm not actually playing."

Nikorak, a 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher drafted out of high school, took a big step in his second year of pro ball.

He lowered his ERA eight points and improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio, from 14 strikeouts and 32 walks his first year to 20 Ks and 19 walks in 2016, when he recorded his first — and so far, only — professional victory.

After an offseason spent at the Rockies' training facility, Nikorak, the Rockies' No. 30 prospect, was having a terrific spring training heading into 2017.

"I just think it was an adjustment as far as coming from high school and facing players that are not very good to jumping to professional baseball where you can't make too any mistakes," he said. "Just changing my mentality to know what kind of pitcher I am and trusting what I have and trusting the teammates behind me all starts to sink in.

"Don't get me wrong, I definitely worked my tail off for the entire offseason to get ready for the season. It's a combination of eating well and lifting and putting on weight and practicing and being at the complex. I don't think there's one specific reason why my first year I struggled and the second year I succeeded and my spring training I had a good spring training. It's just kind of the way it goes in baseball."

But then came soreness in his right elbow, followed by sharp pain when he threw. Nikorak, like all hard-throwing pitchers, had a pretty good idea what was wrong.

He never heard a "pop" when the ulnar collateral ligament ruptures, but "every time I was throwing a baseball it was like a knife going through my elbow," he said. "I knew there was something going on."

An MRI showed ligament damage, and UCL surgery, known as "Tommy John surgery" was performed last spring.

As the season started, Nikorak and three other players, including former GJ Rockies Javier Medina and Rayan Gonzalez, stayed in Scottsdale for rehab. Having teammates going through rebuilding strength in their pitching arms made the days more than bearable.

"We're all kind of pushing each other the entire summer. It wasn't like we woke up and said, 'Aww, man, we have rehab today,' '' he said. "It's more of 'All right, we have rehab today, let's get it out of the way and give it 110 percent.' I really credit not only us, but Andy Stover was the guy rehabbing our arms and Trevor Swartz, our physical performance coordinator who was in the weight room with us pretty much the week of surgery."

Slowly but surely, Nikorak's arm got stronger, to the point where he was throwing off a mound toward the end of spring training. Then came the setback.

"They had me at about 45 pitches in the bullpen and I was getting ready to throw against some hitters and I felt something that was a little bit uncomfortable," he said.

After a week of rehab, the soreness persisted, so he went in for another MRI. Some inflammation and scar tissue had built up, so he got a platlet-rich plasma injection and took a month off, then re-started the throwing program.

That took care of the soreness, and he's spent this season with the Boise Hawks, the Rockies' short-season Class A team, continuing to build up his arm. He's confident that the tendon that was grafted to the UCL is strong.

"I'm healthy now," he said. "I'm considered a normal pitcher. I don't have a million people looking at me to make sure my arm's not hurt. You have to have that mentality that your arm is perfectly fine and pitch like I'm used to pitching; at least that's the mentality I have."

Zach Wilson, the Rockies' senior director of player development, said Nikorak is on track with his rehab and "I suspect he'll be pitching by the end of the season," he said. "We'll do the right thing for him."

Nikorak been throwing on flat ground, with the next step throwing off a mound. Then it's bullpen sessions, live batting practice and finally ...

"We're getting close," Nikorak said. "I'm mentally preparing myself when I am back in the game, to stay within myself and trust all the rehab I've been doing.

"The Rockies picked me for a reason, they want me to pitch for them. I'm just going to go out and pitch for them."

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