Tip Fairchild is out for the year, but not down for the count.

The Monmouth native and one of the top pitching prospects in the Houston Astros organization is scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery in Houston next week after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow. He will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2007 season.

The 24-year-old Fairchild tore the ligament sometime this spring while pitching for the Corpus Christi Hooks, Houston Double-A affiliate in Texas. He made only two starts for the Hooks, lasting just three innings in his debut and four innings in the second outing.

“It just happened in one inning, pretty much, my first start of the year,” Fairchild said from his home in Monmouth. “They were hoping that it was a flexor mass, and basically I needed another start to determine the severity of it. Right now, I can still throw my breaking ball and my change-up, and I can still throw a fastball about 85, but I can’t get any zip on it.”

Fairchild said an MRI revealed he had about a three-quarters tear of the UCL.

The injury is probably the result of wear and tear, said Fairchild, who threw 173 innings last year in 29 games split between two of Houston’s Class A affiliates. But he didn’t feel any symptoms through spring training until after he broke camp for Corpus Christi.

“I made an exhibition start maybe five days before (his first start with the Hooks) and I was throwing 90, 92,” said Fairchild, who had no history of arm trouble. “Then, in the third inning, I was throwing a fastball inside and my forearm was really tight, and I turned around and looked at the board and (the radar reading) was something like 84. I was like, ‘Something’s wrong here.'”

“Right when I throw the ball, I feel a pinch between the funny bone and ulna,” he added.

Years ago, such an injury might have meant the end of Fairchild’s career. But in the mid-1970s, Dr. Frank Jobe developed UCL reconstruction, a procedure that involves replacing the ligament with a healthy tendon from another part of the body. It was named after Tommy John, the former major league Dodgers pitcher who was the first to undergo the procedure.

Fairchild will be operated on by Dr. Tom Mehlhoff, the Astros’ team doctor, who has performed the surgery on a number of other pitchers, including most recently Houston starter Brandon Backe. His rehabilitation will begin the next day with the Astros physical therapy and strength and conditioning staff. After about a week in Houston, he will return to Maine to continue his rehab with Bob Brainard of Central Maine Conditioning Clinic in Auburn. He’ll also be going to Houston for about a weekend out of every month so they can keep tabs on his rehab.

“They say after two-and-a-half or three months, you’re going to be playing golf again,” he said. “They say you’re going to be feeling pretty good, but the rehab for the throwing takes awhile. You start throwing at four months, and you’re throwing from like 25 feet.”

“It’s a real gradual process,” he added. “At about eight months, you start letting it go. You start throwing full speed and around then you start throwing your breaking ball and your change-up, too. So I’m hoping at about 10 months, I’m going to start throwing to hitters live.”

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righty seemed to be on a fast track to Houston after being selected in the 12th round of the 2005 draft. After going 3-6 in half a season at Single-A, he posted a combined 14-7 record at Lexington and Salem last year and was the first member of Houston’s 2005 draft class to get the call at Double-A.

While the injury is a setback, Fairchild has plenty of reasons to believe it won’t interrupt his dream of reaching the Major Leagues. Pitchers often come off Tommy John surgery stronger, since the replacement tendon is much stronger than the original ligament.

“I looked at the stats, and I think it’s something like 113 players are pitching in the big leagues with Tommy John,” he added. “John Smoltz had it. Mariano Rivera has had it. There are a lot of big names out there that have had it.”

“The first week of it, it was kind of hard to accept that my season was over, but I’m kind of over that part right now,” he added. “Now, I’ve just got to get down and get to work. It’s going to be a hard 10 months until I get down to spring training again.”



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