Back surgery forces UA’s Fowler to redshirt this season

In an early-January Phxfan article on the rehabilitation of Arizona Wildcats pitcher Kenzie Fowler following back surgery, we asked the rhetorical question:  “Which Kenzie Fowler will be on the mound this season?”  The reference was to whether the senior pitcher would be hampered by the effects of the surgery, or whether she would be back to her old form

The answer, we now find out, is neither.  The former prep standout from Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson has decided not to try to come back this year.  Instead, she will take a redshirt season and come back for the 2014 season as a fifth-year senior.

“After meeting with Coach Candrea, I decided it was in my best interest, and in the best interest of the program, for me to redshirt this season,” Fowler explained in announcing her decision yesterday.

The Cats are four weeks into their schedule and Fowler’s doctors still haven’t cleared her to play.  So the logical choice was to make the move to redshirt so that she could finish rehabbing her back and return for a full season.

“We were very aware that it would be difficult to put a timeline on Kenzie’s recovery and rehab from this type of surgery, and I support and agree with her decision to redshirt this year,” said Candrea, who is in his 28th season as the program’s head coach.  “Kenzie would like to be 100 percent healthy during her final year of competition, and this decision will allow her the opportunity to be 100 percent  and be able to contribute, both offensively and in the cirlce, during her final year of eligibility.”

The procedure Fowler underwent in early October was a microscopic lumbar discectomy, which is the less invasive form of back surgery.  The special microscope that is used in the procedure enables the surgeon to use a smaller cut, causing less damage to surrounding tissue to promote faster healing.

At the time, doctors were optimistic she had allowed enough time for rehabilitation to be able to get back on the mound in time for this season.  But Candrea took a cautious approach to her rehab, letting her begin with overhand throws for a period before letting her pitch some practice last month.

She hurt her back last January and underwent extensive physical therapy to alleviate leg pain and numbness, but was seldom at full strength through the remainder of the 2012 schedule.  Her final stats were a 15-9 record and a 2.85 ERA.  The team finished 38-19, the first time since 1986 the program failed to register at least 40 wins.

Fowler was sidelined for a couple of weeks with a concussion during her sophomore season, but contrast last year with a healthy freshman season when she became just the second freshman in program history to record a 30-win season and pitched the Cats to the national title game with UCLA and a No. 3 national ranking.

Without the big right-hander on the mound, Arizona has put together a 16-5 record so far this season and is the No. 16-ranked team in the country.  They have blended experience with fresh talent to develop a dependable pitching staff that, for the most part, is getting the job done.

Shelby Babcock has assumed the majority of the workload during the absence of Fowler.  The junior right-hander from Colorado actually had more starts last year than Fowler, starting 31 games and compiling a 3.02 ERA.  Last night’s 9-5 victory over Boise State was her ninth win of the season.

Backing up Babcock is Estela Pinon, a Sunnyside High School (Tucson) grad who transferred to the Wildcat program after earning conference Player of the Year honors while at Yavapai College in Prescott, and Nancy Bowling, a freshman from California who was the No. 7-ranked prospect on ESPN’s Top 100 list coming out of high school.

While Candrea will have to suck it up this year without Fowler, there is a silver lining to this cloud.  Next year, not only will he have Fowler back, but all three of the pitchers on this year’s staff will be returning.

He probably has the horsepower this year to get into the post-season and should be able to get through regionals and make a good showing in super regional play.

But next year, with a healthy Fowler and a seasoned staff, we could be looking at a national title contender.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)