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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Baseball

Returning home: Austin Pruitt’s road back to Houston


Former UH baseball right-handed pitcher Austin Pruitt makes his home debut as an Astro on July 21 against the Indians. | Courtesy of the Houston Astros

Former UH baseball right-handed pitcher Austin Pruitt makes his home debut as an Astro on July 21 against the Indians. | Courtesy of the Houston Astros

Although he had made 67 major league appearances since 2017, when Austin Pruitt took the mound at Guaranteed Rate Field on a Chicago Saturday night it meant much more than almost all his previous appearances.

July 17 marked Pruitt’s Astros debut, signifying that staying the course despite all the setbacks and roadblocks, both physical and mental, he encountered over the last 18 months— which the 31-year old described as the hardest 18 months of his baseball career— had been worth it.

“That feeling was amazing,” Pruitt said. “It was like a weight had been lifted a little bit. It was crazy. I was a little calmer than I thought I was going to be. It was super emotional and amazing to get out there.”

Emerging prospect

Growing up in the Woodlands, Pruitt was the typical Houston sports fan, cheering on all of his hometown teams, especially the Astros who held a special place in his heart.

Throughout his childhood, Pruitt occasionally went to Astros games with his parents to cheer on his beloved team.

Little did Pruitt know that years later he would no longer have to buy a ticket to get into Minute Maid Park as he would transition from sitting in one of the ballpark’s 41,000 seats to standing on a 6-by-24-inch rectangular piece of rubber in the middle of the diamond.

But first, the right-hander would make a two-year stop at a place that was just a 45 minute drive from his childhood home, Schroeder Park, the home of the Houston Cougars.

Pruitt quickly got on Todd Whitting and the UH baseball program’s radar after his stellar 2011 season at Navarro Junior College in which Pruitt led the Bulldogs to a National JUCO World Series championship with a nation-leading 0.81 ERA on the season.

Pruitt could not pass up on the opportunity to put on the red and white to represent a city he knew well.

“Whoa Dill, coach at Navarro, told me that UH was interested (in me),” Pruitt said. “(UH) asked if I wanted to come in and visit. Then I committed.”

Pruitt immediately showed Cougar fans why UH had aggressively pursued him as he quickly became the team’s top starter, leading the Cougars’ starting staff in ERA, wins and innings pitched.

Austin Pruitt's complete-game one-hitter against Texas State was one of the many highlights of his 2013 senior season. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Austin Pruitt’s complete-game one-hitter against Texas State was one of the many highlights of his 2013 senior season. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Pruitt elevated his game to another level his senior season, evolving into a true ace. 

The turning point for Austin was his last year with us where he really started committing to himself getting better and becoming the best pitcher he could be,” said UH baseball head coach Todd Whitting.He always had good stuff and a good breaking ball but you saw him turn the corner mentally and figure out he had the chance to play professional baseball.

By the season’s end, Pruitt’s name was etched into the UH record book as the 5-foot-10-inch right-hander became the first Cougar since Brad Lincoln in 2006 to earn double-digit wins, with 10, and pitch 100 or more innings, as Pruitt threw 113 and 2/3 innings highlighted by a Conference USA leading five complete games tossed.

Even with the additional 22 and 2/3 innings tossed in 2013, Pruitt lowered his ERA by more than a full point from his junior season, posting a 2.85 ERA as a senior which was best among the entire UH pitching staff.

Pruitt’s historic season at UH caught the attention of many major league organizations which led to the Tampa Bay Rays using their ninth-round pick of the 2013 MLB draft on the former Cougar.

While Pruitt’s time playing at the friendly confines of Schroeder Park had come to an end, he would carry with him all the people he met along the way during his two seasons as a Cougar.

“All the teammates that I had (at UH) were awesome,” Pruitt said. “They kind of shaped who I am today.”

Welcome to ‘The Show’

Fast forward four years from when he heard his name called in the draft and Pruitt’s status as a prospect vanished as he made the Rays Opening Day roster.

Pruitt’s MLB debut came in the ninth inning of the Rays 2017 opener against the Yankees, as the right-hander was tasked with trying to secure the team’s first win. Pruitt threw 10 pitches but failed to record an out allowing two hits.

While Pruitt’s struggles continued throughout the majority of his rookie campaign, his best performance came on Aug. 2 in the very ballpark he had watched many games as a kid.

Getting the nod as the Rays starter, Pruitt tossed 6 and 1/3 shutout innings against his childhood team, powering Tampa to a 3-0 victory.

Hometown kid returns home

After spending three years as a Ray, Pruitt received the news that a major leaguer either anxiously anticipates or dreads, depending on the circumstance, on a Thursday evening in January 2020 — he was being traded.

Lucky for Pruitt, this trade turned out to be music to his ears because of the team that had acquired him, the Astros.

Austin Pruitt could not have been more excited to get a chance to play for the very team he grew up cheering for. | Courtesy of the Houston Astros

Austin Pruitt was excited to get a chance to play for the very team he grew up cheering for. | Courtesy of the Houston Astros

“It was amazing,” Pruitt said. “I couldn’t really ask for anything else than being able to stay at home with my wife and kids and come in (to Minute Maid Park every day) to work.”

Bumps in the road

Pruitt was immediately a candidate to fill the Astros fifth starting spot with Gerrit Cole’s departure, but those plans quickly derailed.

After his first spring training appearance, Pruitt’s right elbow felt sorer than he expected but he played it off as just his body’s process of getting back into baseball shape.

“After my first (spring training) outing, I remember my elbow got unusually sore,” Pruitt said. “I was kind of thinking it was just the kinks of my arm getting into shape. It turned out that something was kind of wrong with it.”

After two more outings, the soreness still resided so Pruitt shut down and did not throw for a period of around four weeks. After taking time off, Pruitt resumed his throwing routine and with it the elbow soreness returned.

A medical consultation revealed a hairline fracture in Pruitt’s right elbow which led to a September surgery to place a screw in the elbow to increase support.

As a result, Pruitt missed the entire 2020 season as he underwent the long and grueling rehab process which presented Pruitt with the most difficult challenge of his baseball career.

“The rehab process was pretty brutal,” Pruitt said. “Putting a foreign object into your elbow, it takes a long time for your body to get used to that foreign object.”

As Pruitt battled the ups and downs of the rehab process hoping to return to the mound at some point during the 2021 season, another roadblock emerged as he revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 in early January.

But Pruitt stayed motivated as he recovered from COVID-19 and moved one step closer to returning to pitch in a live game.

The long-awaited return

In mid-June, Pruitt began his rehab assignment first stopping in Fayetteville, the Astros Low-A affiliate, before making his way to Sugar Land to pitch for the Astros Class AAA club.

Seven minor league appearances later and nearly 18 months since being traded to the Astros, Pruitt finally was activated from the Injured List.

A day later Pruitt finally took the mound against the Chicago White Sox with the name of his childhood team across his chest. Pruitt pitched two innings allowing one run on two hits while striking out one batter.

Four days later, Pruitt made his home debut as an Astro against the Indians, this time lasting two-thirds of an inning, showing solid command aside from one mistake which resulted in a solo home run.

While Pruitt is still trying to establish his spot in an Astros bullpen that has had its fair share of struggles throughout the season, manager Dusty Baker is confident there is an important role for Pruitt to fill as the team pushes towards the AL West crown.

Baker just has to figure out what that role will be.

“There’s a spot for a guy like (Pruitt),” Baker said. “Especially a guy who throws strikes. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball but he has a good changeup and breaking ball and he can locate … We still got to see where we’re going to slot him and what’s best for him and best for us.”

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