BY STEVE KRAH
This is not the path Alec Burnett envisioned when he graduated from Columbus (Ind.) East High School in 2018.
He saw himself going to college to become a physical therapist.
Burnett didn’t know at the time that he would change his major. Nor did he realize he was still going to work with P.T.’s, only he would be the patient.
Born with an extra tricep in his right arm, Burnett began having pain when his arm muscles grew. The muscle slip was entwined with the ulnar nerve in his elbow, causing numbness and pain as he pitched for the University of Indianapolis baseball team.
“I was experiencing extreme pain,” says Burnett. “It was if it was hitting my funny bone 1,000 times. We weren’t sure what it was. I knew it was on the outside of my arm. It felt muscular.
“And it was taking my 88 to 90 mph (fastball) down to 80 to 84 mph. But as frustrating as that was I was still getting outs so we kept rolling with it.”
Bulked up to 205 pounds from 160 when he entered college, the distance between the muscle and nerves for Burnett had narrowed.
Add to that the violent motion that comes with pitching a baseball and something had to give and the condition revealed itself.
“It’s not if you’re going to get hurt, it’s when you’re going to get hurt,” says Burnett. “That motion is just not sustainable.”
A posterior shoulder impingement caused Burnett to sit out the 2019 UIndy season as a redshirt.
He tossed two innings for the Greyhounds before the 2020 campaign was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, Burnett had a role to fill on the Indianapolis staff.
“I was the jam guy or fireman or whatever you want to call it,” says Burnett, who ripped five or six pitches in the bullpen then came into a high-intensity situation on short notice. “There might be runners on second and third with one out in a one-run ball game and I’d come in and mitigate the damage.
“I did tremendous out of that role.”
Pitching through pain, Burnett worked in 13 games and 19 innings in 2021 and went 2-0 with 3.79 earned run average, 30 strikeouts and 11 walks for then-pitching coach Landon Hutchison. His WHIP (walks and hit per innings pitched) was 1.263.
Burnett did not pitch in the summer of 2021.
“It was my hope that rest is what my arm needed,” says Burnett.
But with the beginning of velocity training before going to back college, the pain was back in a big way.
“As soon as I picked up a baseball it hurt more than it ever had,” says Burnett. “I knew I had to get it checked out.”
Through a teammate, Burnett consulted with well-respected Cincinnati-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Timothy Kremchek and a nerve specialist.
The tricep slip was discovered through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
An EMG (Electromyography) was done to see the location of disturbance in the nerve pathway.
Burnett was told that surgery was indicated if he wanted to continue in the game.
“It was an easy decision for me,” says Burnett. “I was told if you want to pitch after college (teams) want to see that this is fixed. I love baseball and I love playing baseball. Maybe more than that I love the competition in general. Competition is wanting to be the best version of yourself.
“If I didn’t get that nerve pathway fixed I wasn’t going to be at my best. And with the pain, it hard to focus on the game.”
Ulnar nerve transposition surgery was set for Sept. 21, 2021 in Cincinnati.
The recovery was rough.
“I would not wish nerve pain on anyone,” says Burnett. “I just sat on the couch and cried.
“It was like having your arm over a bonfire and you can’t move it.”
Even so, he started the rehabilitation process the next day and was determined to be ready to pitch for UIndy when the 2022 season opened in February.
“It was a point I wanted to make to myself,” says Burnett. “It wasn’t coming from anybody else.”
Led by athletic trainer Makenna McAteer, Burnett went to PT three or four times a week.
“She went far beyond athletic training,” says Burnett of McAteer. “She got me out of the rut I was in.”
McAteer also put Burnett in-touch with sports psychologist Nate Foster.
“There was a a bunch of bruising and swelling and my range of motion was very, very limited (after surgery),” says Burnett. “I could not bend elbow back and forth at first. I was told to move it as much as I could as soon as I could. I could not afford to lose much range of motion.
“At the beginning, I bet I couldn’t squeeze any hard than an infant. It was that bothered.”
He did his best to get back in the weight room with his teammates. As soon as the incision was closed up, he was working his legs and the left side of his body.
Burnett first threw a baseball in Nov. 15.
“My buddies were so amped up for me,” says Burnett. “That was the cool part.”
He pitched a scoreless frame in the Greyhounds’ season-opening series at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. The “Real Feel” temperature on Feb. 20 was 17 degrees.
“I didn’t have a great year,” says Burnett, who went on to toss 11 2/3 innings over 15 games with an 0-1 mark, one save and 4.63 earned run average while striking out 18 and walking 16. “My struggling performance was a physical issue until I had several in a row, leading to the issue becoming a mental struggle.
“I wouldn’t change anything about this season. This season tested me as a ballplayer and a person. I am now better for it, knowing who I am and just what I am capable of.”
Burnett, 22, has earned several honors for his work in the classroom, including four times Academic All-Great Lakes Valley Conference, twice a GLVC Brother James Gaffney FSC Distinguished Scholar and recipient of a GLVC Council of Presidents’ Academic Excellence Award.
He graduated from UIndy and will pursue a Masters of Business Administration and play baseball as a graduate transfer at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., in 2022-23.
“It’s the best fit for me,” says Burnett of the NCAA Division I program he connected with through his 2022 summer team, the Northwoods League’s Wisconsin Rapids Rafters. “I’m going to have a role. They play a they play a crazy out of conference schedule. I’ll get a chance to play very good college baseball programs.
“I’ll be an MBA student in the business hub of the world. I’ve never been to New York. I’m taking a big leap. But I know I can figure it out.”
With the Rafters, he’s already logged 16 innings in 13 games and is 1-0 with two saves and a 2.25 ERA. He has struck out 26 and walked 10.
Born and raised in Columbus, Alec (22) is the middle child of construction worker Rob and Columbus East teacher Michelle Burnett.
Older sister Jade (25) graduated from Columbus East in 2014 and Franklin (Ind.) College in 2018 and is married and living in the Center Grove area. Younger sister Kyra (16) is heading into her junior year at Columbus East.
Alec played for Olympians head baseball coach Jon Gratz. One of his travel ball stops was with the Indiana Twins where he developed with pitching coach Scott Haase.