Donovan Zsak was really at the top of his game in the summer of 2020. His fastball had been clocked at 92 and he already had a commitment to Virginia in his back pocket. And he was still 16 years old, a month or so into the receding tide of his sophomore year of high school.
Sure, he was beginning to experience some arm discomfort, the kind, he thought, pitchers have all the time and can work through. Then the pain didn’t go away.
“We were playing Jackson in the semifinals of the Last Dance Tournament,” said Zsak of he and his St. Joseph (Met.) teammates. “I remember the date. It was July 27, 2020. My arm was not feeling good. I was dealing with elbow pain for a couple months. I knew I couldn’t push through it anymore.”
The 6-3, 185-pound lefty hadn’t ignored the pain. He, in fact, had done some physical therapy for the joint while still pitching. “The initial diagnosis,” he said, “was tendonitis. We never got an MRI. But I knew after the Jackson game I needed one to see what was up.”
That MRI revealed something much worse than Zsak had expected. It showed a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament. “My only option was Tommy John surgery,” he said. “It really sucked. It happened during COVID, so I couldn’t talk in-person to my doctor. I found out (my fate) over a Zoom call. It was heartbreaking.”
Anyone spending even a little bit of time with Donovan Zsak would have a difficult time imagining him defeated or depressed. Conversely, Zsak embraced his unenviable predicament as a challenge, like any other he had faced during his development into one of the top pitchers in New Jersey among his classmates.
“I knew the faster I had the surgery, the faster I’d be back on the field,” said Zsak. “My surgery was August 12, 14 days after the Jackson game.”
Zsak, like every other high school baseball player in New Jersey, lost his 2020 season to COVID — the subsequent Last Dance Tournament thankfully provided some solace — and he would lose his 2021 season to Tommy John surgery and a long rehab.
“I had topped out at 92 in June of 2020 at a Perfect Game event,” said Donovan. “I was on top of the world. I was 16. Six weeks later I’m getting Tommy John surgery.”
Donovan, who turned 17 in the summer of 2002, did, indeed, embrace the long dark months of recovery and rehab and dealing with no baseball in his life.
“The first three months was just basic strengthening. Then came physical therapy for full range of motion the next four-to-seven months,” he said. “I threw for the first time on Christmas Day (2020). It was just light tossing from 60 feet. I wasn’t nervous about throwing. I was just ready to get back out there. I was also working out with light weights to build up strength. At the eight-month mark I was full go in the weight room and I started playing catch at up to 120 feet.”
Fast forward 500 days from the date of his surgery and Donovan is back on the mound, looking an awful lot like the old Donovan, effortlessly chucking 90-plus mile-per-hour heaters as he builds himself back to 100 percent in anticipation of his senior season at St. Joseph.
“Everything is going well,” he said. “I’m going to a trainer, Total Arm Care, and that’s really made a huge change. I got back up to 92 the other day for the first time in 16 months. My end of winter goal is to get my velocity up to 95 and hopefully get drafted this spring. There’s a lot of hard work before that. There’s 108 days until opening day.”
Zsak has a program in place to build arm strength while remaining painfully consistent in his arm slot and delivery, so it would be incorrect to presume he’s out heaving fastballs to impress and rush back to normalcy.
“I’ve actually been working on a changeup,” said Zsak. “I’ve always been a fastball, curveball type of guy. But I’m starting to get a feel for my changeup grip. I never had one before. My curveball has always been pretty good but it was loopy. I’m trying to develop a little harder break.”
Zsak says he’ll have his last bullpen sessions this week before shutting things down for four weeks. “I’ll pick things back up after Christmas,” he said.
Murray has been a bit protective of his ace.
“The biggest thing with Donovan is he’s so competitive we’ve had to slow him down,” said St. Joseph coach Mike Murray. He’s chomping on the bit.” Zsak has learned the rehab process cannot be rushed, but he’ll be at the ramp up stage pretty soon when containing that enthusiasm for competition will no longer be necessary.
If there is trepidation in Zsak’s thoughts and actions as he progresses to the later part of the fine-tuning process for the 2022 season, it’s not obvious. But one wouldn’t blame him for being concerned after he encountered a setback last summer, nearly 12 months into his recovery.
“I’m at the end of the tunnel now,” said Zsak, aptly describing that feeling one gets from a long rehab. “But my Tommy John experience wasn’t as smooth as a lot of others. I was throwing in July and my elbow started hurting again.”
Certainly not taking any chances, Donovan had his elbow checked out again and his doctor found a strain in the UCL. “It was the same ligament, but it was just a strain this time. I got PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections and, ever since then, I’ve been good. They did an ultrasound and found the ligament to be healthy, sound and ready to go. I’m glad I got it checked out.”
There are negatives and, surprisingly, positives about the whole Tommy John experience that will stick with Donovan for a long time.
“It was really nerve racking going into the surgery,” said Zsak. “I was scared, honestly. But I knew I had good people around me to help me out, including my family. Everything was handled the right way. I don’t regret the surgery. It helped shape me into a better person, helped me appreciate everything a lot more, helped me become a better teammate.
Zsak became another coach in the St. Joseph dugout last spring, pushing and motivating teammates, while aware he wasn’t close to be cleared to pitch or hit. “I thought I did a good job at that,” he said. “We had a real young team last year and I thought, despite not playing, I was a good addition to the team.”
Murray agreed, revealing Zsak was even used as a courtesy runner for the Falcons catchers.
“Donovan was the most talented pinch-runner in the state,” smirked Murray. “He has a big league demeanor. He set a great example last year for the younger guys.”
UVA comes a-knockin’ early
Zsak was just a freshman when he committed to Virginia on Nov. 4, 2018, a date he had no trouble recalling. The genesis of that commitment was surely an afternoon in West Palm Beach, Florida when a 15 year-old Donovan unleashed an advanced arsenal on the Dirtbags, a nationally ranked travel team the Diamond Jacks Super 15U had encountered in the WWBA Freshman World Championships.
“His outing in West Palm Beach is one I still talk about all the time,” said Walt Cleary, Zsak’s Diamond Jacks coach since his 12U year. “It was one of the most impressive outings I’ve seen by a 15 year-old on a national stage. He went five innings and struck out 10 in a win against a Top 10 team in the country. Shortly after that he committed to UVA.”
The verbal to Virginia came three or four weeks after Zsak’s dazzling performance in West Palm Beach. “I was throwing 79-82 back then, which is hard for a lefty freshman. Coach (Kevin) Cust talked to a bunch of schools for me after that outing,” said Zsak. “I think UVA saw me again a few weeks later.”
Virginia Tech, Maryland, South Carolina and West Virginia were in the mix, as well, by then, but it was Virginia that came through with the first offer.
“Coach Cust talked to their pitching coach, then he gave me his number,” said Zsak, who chatted with Karl Kuhn, Virginia’s pitching coach for 16 years. Kuhn later left for the head coaching job at Radford College in August of 2019.
Zsak attended a camp at the Charlottesville, Virginia campus that fall and fell in love with the university.
“They were really interested and once they offered, I knew it was a great opportunity and I took it,” said Zsak. “I’ve visited twice, for the camp freshman year and a couple weeks ago for my official visit.”
The official visit to Donovan’s college of choice included a two-night sleepover. “The committed class stayed one night in a hotel, then another night at an apartment with one of the players,” said Zsak. “We watched fall practices, scrimmages and observed workouts. We got a feel for it, met all the guys on the team and the guys in my recruiting class.”
Zsak has since chosen economics as a major. “I qualified for the major,” he said, “and I’ve looked at jobs in that field. I can see a lot of different opportunities.”
Donovan joined the Diamond Jacks program as a 12 year-old and remembers his coaches impacting his development right from the beginning.
“I remember coach Phil (Lundari) and coach Walt (Cleary) that year. Coach Walt has really been awesome. He was my coach when I committed to UVA. He’s been a huge part of my career.”
Cleary has been front and center watching and nudging Donovan along in his development from the small diamond, to the big diamond and to success at major showcases.
“I had the pleasure of coaching Don at 12U and 14U and it’s been amazing to watch him continue to improve every year,” said Cleary. “We knew very early that he was a stud on the mound and could throw three pitches early. As he’s gotten older, the command on those pitches continues to improve. He’s an extremely hard worker. I’m proud of his progress throughout the years while staying the same kid who enjoys playing the game. He’s an exceptional ball player and person.”
Next up is a St. Joseph season that holds plenty of promise with the senior Zsak leading the way as the team’s ace.
“Donovan is a kid who has as much physical talent as anyone in the state and he’s been bottled up for two years,” says Murray. “He struck out the first 13 batters against Sayreville in the Last Dance. We didn’t know it at the time but he had no UCL. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do when he’s healthy.”
Aren’t we all?