Jack Pauley could have headed back home to Kansas. His coaches at Northern Colorado understood, even suggested that he go. Pauley, though, was not ready to leave Central Oregon.
He was already a Bend Elks hero, whose RBI bloop single in the bottom of the 10th inning had lifted the Elks to a season-opening win over Walla Walla. Yet that same swing was nearly his last of the summer.
Pauley, a junior at UNC next season, connected with the pitch on the handle of his bat, forcing his left thumb backward. It would swell significantly and become discolored.
While awaiting test results from a doctor and an MRI, Pauley, fearing and preventing possible further damage to a broken hand, sat in the Elks’ dugout for 19 games — nearly half of the West Coast League season.
The outfielder could not play, but he did not want to go home.
Pauley clung to only a sliver of hope that his summer season was not yet over, but his faith was rewarded.
And after returning to the lineup earlier this month, Pauley has been leading an Elks team that is scrapping to reach the WCL postseason.
“I was telling a couple of guys on the team that you really don’t know how nice it is to be back, just playing,” says Pauley, who is batting .300 for the Elks this summer, and .324 since coming back from injury.
“When you’re spending every night on the bench, it takes a lot out of you, you wanting to be out there so bad. When you’re playing, it’s so fun being in this environment with thousands of fans. Even when you’re striking out, you’re still playing. That helped me stay positive that, even if I do have a bad game or bad at-bat, I’m still playing. Which is more than what I was doing before.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Pauley did not feel the initial pain after that game-winning hit in the season opener. Celebrating afterward with his new teammates, he recounts, he was numbed by adrenaline. Later, though, the aching began.
“It was such a big situation at the time, and the moment was so cool,” Pauley recalls. “But I remember laying in bed after. I was scrolling on my phone, and it hurt to scroll.”
For another week, the pain in his left thumb persisted, but so did Pauley. He would hit a home run in a home loss against Corvallis and returned to Vince Genna Stadium the next day with a swollen, black-and-blue boxing glove of a throwing hand. Elks coach Alan Embree took no chances. Pauley was out of the lineup — possibly, Pauley worried, for good.
“I wanted to stay as positive as I could,” Pauley says. “I really did not want to leave. And I didn’t want to be the guy on the team that was already kind of mentally checked out. But there was a part of me that was like, ‘Man, this was a quick summer.’”
“Ultimately, it’s not one of those things where I want a kid to play through an injury and then go back to his school and have to get it taken care of,” Embree explains. “I’d rather have it taken care of and him not play for me and be ready for school ball than anything. I was extra cautious with him; he’ll tell you that, I’m sure.”
Pauley has photos on his phone of his throwing hand. He was certain — and everyone who had seen it agreed — that it was broken. He researched hand injuries and recovery time, and the majority of results indicated a three-month rehabilitation. It took a few weeks to schedule and receive an MRI, not to mention to visit a doctor for preliminary tests, and another couple of days for results to arrive. He spent his time swimming and doing arm and core workouts. It was all he could do to keep his mind off the injury and being sidelined by it.
He sat idly watching the Elks prepare for and then play in games. Bend went 5-4 in the first nine games before Pauley was sidelined. Over the next 19, the Elks won just seven. During an early-July day, Pauley returned to the doctor for the MRI results. Despite the swelling and discoloration, Pauley had suffered what he calls a “really bad sprain” that resulted in fluid building up in the joint near his thumb. After the fluid was drained, he recalls, “I was good to go.”
A few hours later, Pauley joined his Elks teammates in Corvallis. He was ready to contribute once again.
“Just having him back in the lineup, it definitely gives a threat, and (opposing teams) have to pitch carefully,” Embree says. “He’s got power, and he’s in the middle of the lineup for a reason.”
Pauley returned to action in a July 4 game in Corvallis, coming off the bench for one at-bat. And, he says, “it was a little sketchy.” During the time he was sidelined, Pauley would stand in the batter’s box during Elks pitchers’ bullpen sessions. “But no matter how many (pitches) you stand in on, it’s nothing like trying to hit it. It looked faster than it ever has. It was only three weeks off, but it was … wow!”
It did not take long for the hulking left-hander to settle in, however. Before the injury, Pauley had six hits and five RBIs in seven games. He says he knew his spot in the lineup would not just be handed back to him. He would have to earn it. So, over his first four starts after returning, he went 9-for-16 with a home run and six RBIs. Pauley was back.
The Elks won seven of their first 10 games after Pauley’s return, including a string of six straight victories to climb back into playoff contention. They averaged just over five runs per game with Pauley on the bench and are scoring nearly eight per contest since his return.
“Having that left-handed bat with a little bit of pop,” Embree says, “he sort of brings a little bit of an energy and a presence to the team when he’s in the lineup.”
Pauley’s season with the Elks could have been a short one. He had the opportunity to head home and heal up. After playing in all 54 of Northern Colorado’s games this past spring, when he batted .332, he certainly could have used the rest. But Bend was where he wanted to be.
“I wanted to stick around,” Pauley says, glancing around Vince Genna Stadium and soaking it all in. “This is such a cool opportunity in a great league. And this is the best place to play in the West Coast League.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0307, firstname.lastname@example.org.