When Donovan Zsak switched his college commitment in August from Virginia to Rutgers, it gave the Big Ten program its fourth player from Diamond Nation’s Diamond Jack program.
It also gave Rutgers a very big arm to add to its arsenal. Rutgers returns a large cast from its remarkable 2022 campaign in which it went 44-15 behind one of the nation’s top offenses and reached the Big Ten Tournament championship game. It lost to Michigan in that final and was stunningly omitted from the 64-team NCAA tournament field.
You can get the Scarlet Knights will be looking for a bit of redemption in 2023.
Zsak joins fellow Diamond Jacks Hugh Pinkney, a freshman catcher/outfielder from Toronto, and a pair of big junior righties in Drew Conover and Gavin Stellpflug on the Rutgers squad. The 6-1, 185 Pinkney had a busy summer and fall playing for Team Canada in the Under-18 Baseball World Cup.
Conover, a 6-2, 185 Voorhees High grad, played two years at Seton Hall University before transferring to Rutgers. The righty was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round of the MLB Draft in July. He was named to the All Star team in the Cape Cod League this summer.
Stellpflug, a 6-6, 230 Somerville High grad, played two years at Maryland before transferring to Rutgers. Stellpflug played summer ball in the NECBL and had a very good fall season in Piscataway. “I made some big improvements and gained some velocity and was up to 95,” said Stellpflug.
The 6-3, 190 lefty Zsak, a St. Joseph of Metuchen grad, had Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2020 and, while his velocity was back up to its low 90s norm last spring, he experienced a dip in velocity and some elbow pain later in the spring. An MRI, unfortunately, revealed another tear in the ulnar collateral ligament and Zsak had his second Tommy John surgery on July 10.
“I was fine my first four games,” said Zsak. “I had a really hot start to the spring. But toward the end of the spring my velo dropped and my arm started hurting.”
Zsak’s fastball touched 95 and sat comfortably in the low 90s before his arm trouble. He had elevated at that point to a projected fifth or sixth round MLB draft pick.
“It was pretty heartbreaking knowing I’d have to have surgery again. Revision surgeries aren’t typical. I was 17 at the time of the first surgery, so my surgeon felt that because my body was still growing, the shift in my bones and the joint caused stress on the ligament and eventually the second tear.”
Before the re-injury, Zsak was showing the same dominance he exhibited prior to his elbow trouble. But his focus has now switched to getting back to total arm health. The Rutgers staff is pumped to have Zsak aboard as it waits patiently for his return to full arm health.
“Donnie is an exciting talent with his athleticism, work ethic and upside,” said Rutgers pitching coach Brendan Monaghan. “He can be a premier talent in our program when he gets back to full strength. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can bring to our staff next year.”
While the start of his Rutgers career is delayed until next fall, Zsak is fired up for the promise the Scarlet Knights show for 2023.
“It feels great to stay home and compete in the Big Ten,” said Zsak. “A great program like Rutgers is filled with a bunch of local talent. Rutgers is truly on the rise and I’m happy to be a part of the program. It’s a bunch of hard-nosed Jersey guys. We’re going to be really good this year.”
He is five months into elbow rehab and much work lies ahead.
“It’ll be another six to eight weeks before I begin throwing,” Zsak said. “That will be at the seventh month mark. The return-to-throwing protocol is much later than after the first surgery. Then I go into a six month throwing phase.”
That will have Zsak back to full arm health by August. “I’ll be good for my sophomore fall,” he said.
Part of the rehab from a serious injury is mental and that part can be equally challenging as the physical component.
“I try to be positive but it really stinks,” he said. “I have good people around me, pushing me. My parents have been great. Baseball is a game and it ends at some point for everyone. My plan is to keep playing until the wheels fall off.”
The Rutgers strength and conditioning staff and training staff have Zsak on the right path and his coaches have bet on his ability, athleticism and determination to get all the way back.
“Working with our training and strength staff has been great,” he said. “My elbow feels a lot healthier than during my first rehab.”
He’ll also have three fellow Diamond Jacks and a very tight Scarlet Knights squad to lean on.