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CSUN Trying to Pick Up Pieces of Shattered Season : College baseball: Four key players sidelined by injury are on the mend, but it's generally a slow and cautious process.

July 22, 1994|STEVE ELLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — It was dark humor, to be sure, but it was a dark season.

Toward the end of Cal State Northridge's unsettling baseball campaign, somebody in the grandstand cracked that the Matadors' team physician was named Frankenstein.

No doubt about it, a doctor with a dull scalpel and a sharp eye could have constructed a pretty good ballplayer by using the healthy parts of four key athletes who were sidelined because of season-ending injuries.

The troops grew thin, the cast was hardly complete. In fact, for three of the wounded, the cast was on their respective right arms.

Two months after the final game of 1994, the healing of John Najar, Keven Kempton, Chad Thornhill and Andy Shaw continues. Will the injury storm clouds blow over by spring? To assess the team's chances, it might be advisable to use a hospital thermometer instead of a barometer.

The season was the worst in the six-year tenure of Coach Bill Kernen, who had led the Matadors to the NCAA Division I playoffs in each of the three previous seasons. The staff earned-run average was a bloated 6.35, within a homer or two of the worst in school history (6.41), and the Matadors finished 25-30, their first losing season since 1988.

More than a few team records were set in the futility department, but it was a series of injuries that was at least partly responsible for the team's dismal performance.

By season's end, because of injury and attrition, only 14 healthy players were available. More specifically, five of the nine pitchers on the opening-day roster were injured.

Right-handers Najar and Kempton accounted for two-thirds of the Matadors' three-man starting rotation when the season opened in February, but neither finished the year.

Kempton, who won 10 games as a junior in 1993, was strafed in four starts, during which he was 0-3 with a 7.71 ERA.

He had major reconstructive surgery on his right elbow March 7. This summer, he is working out with a personal trainer in San Diego and was given the green light this week to begin light throwing.

He hopes to begin throwing off the mound by December. While recovery from the Tommy John-type surgery usually takes at least a year, Kempton, who was given a medical redshirt year and will be a 25-year-old, fifth-year senior in 1995, hopes to be available by midseason at the latest. He is even considering trying to make the team as a position player.

"I'll do whatever it takes to get back out there," he said.

Najar did whatever it took to stay out there, pitching in excruciating pain for several weeks with a hairline fracture in his right forearm. Still, he wanted the ball.

On April 8, during a key series at San Diego State, the bone gave way as Najar made a pitch. In a frightening moment, the crack was heard by his teammates in the dugout.

Najar's recovery has been steady but not particularly fast. The cast wasn't removed until last month. This time, Najar isn't taking any chances as he heads into his senior year.

"I want to really make sure it's healed," Najar said.

He doesn't plan to press the issue until he's given full medical clearance to throw, which could come as soon as next month. Najar (5-3, 5.83 ERA in 1994) said he briefly tossed around a Nerf ball a few days ago and was more than a little worried.

"I was kind of tentative," he said. "Kind of scared. I want to make sure it's ready. If I'm healthy (next spring), I'll be fine."

Thornhill, the team's starting shortstop, suffered a broken bone in his right elbow April 24 during a collision at first base. He already has begun playing for a traveling summer team in Fresno, his hometown.

Thornhill, a transfer from Fresno City College who batted .278 and drove in 26 runs last season, has been playing with the Fresno Royals, a National Baseball Congress team.

Thornhill recovered quickly-- once he cleared the mental hurdles. "At first, I thought I'd never be able to throw again," he said. "I just had to get over the fear of throwing."

Thornhill said his arm has gradually gained strength and feels about 90% sound.

Shaw, a transfer from College of the Canyons and the 1993 Western State Conference player of the year, never had a chance to play in '94. He underwent knee surgery before the season opened in February, but his recovery is ahead of schedule. Shaw has been working out six days a week at Matador Field and is riding a stationary bicycle 20 miles daily.

Shaw, who was Northridge's projected starter at first base, hopes to receive clearance to begin jogging next month.

"It's felt real good lately," he said of the knee. "I don't know if it'll ever feel 100% again. It'll always probably hurt a little bit, but I think I can handle it."

Shaw, like many of his wounded mates, is proceeding carefully. While many college ballplayers across the nation are playing in summer leagues in Alaska or Cape Cod, the Northridge foursome operate at half speed.

With an eye on the calendar, you could say their theme is: Spring forward, fall back.

"You can take your time now," said Shaw, who will be a junior. "There's no hurry. We all need to make sure we do it right so we're ready. It's a lot more important to be ready in the spring than the fall."

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