Having broken a bone in his foot for the second time in less than a year, the last thing on Abe Havelka’s mind was baseball.
The freshman at Division III powerhouse, St. John’s University, was forced to quite preparation for his redshirt sophomore season on the football team and was in the process of rehabilitating his fifth metacarpal after snapping the bone while making a cut during a routine spring drill.
However, when his former high school baseball coach reached out, he wasn’t going to ignore the buzz from his phone, answering the call and effectively kick-starting the process that led to Tuesday’s exceptional return to the mound against Stewartville.
“Honestly when I broke it again, I was more worried about getting back for football and baseball really wasn’t on my mind,” Havelka said after Tuesday’s extra-inning victory at Dartts Park. “And then Tate (Cummins) gave me a call and he was like: ‘What are you thinking about this summer for baseball?’ At that point, I was like, well, I broke my foot again; I don’t know if that’s going to work. But the surgery went well and I recovered quicker than last time, so I was able to get back. Tate has been great. He has been texting me quite a bit and (Brian) Price has been helping as well. Both have really been doing everything that can to get me back to 100 percent.”
Havelka’s triumphant return to the diamond has been a long time coming. His journey to the present has taken a few detours and endured more than one potentially devastating setback. Havelka, though, has never been one to let emotions get the best of him. It’s why he was able to shatter every passing record in Owatonna football history, play a key role on the basketball team and earn multiple all-conference accolades on the diamond.
He embodies the multi-sport mentality at Owatonna High School, so the 6-strikeout, 0-hit performance he spun in three innings against Stewartville at Chuck Fuller should actually came as little surprise. he also didn’t have to accept Cummins’ invitation to play for the Post 77 baseball team this summer. No one would have blamed him if he would have instead elected to spend his time exclusively preparing for his impending college football career.
But if there’s a chance to play sports, Havelka is there.
“Tate knows this is an athletic squad with a lot of athletic guys,” Havelka said of the current Post 77 roster. “He wants to make a deep run in the playoffs, and if one more pitcher helps out, that would be awesome. I am happy to be here for sure.”
Havelka’s original injury took place only hours after the Huskies clinched the Big Nine Conference championship against Winona on May 18, 2018 — a devastating blow to not only Havelka, but the program as a whole. Owatonna entered the postseason as the top-seeded team in Section 1-AAAA, and after starting 2-0, came up short in the section final four against Lakeville North and Farmington in back-to-back losses on June 2.
From there, Havelka cast his gaze to the future and elected to forgo surgery and let the bone heal naturally. He missed his first season with the Johnnies and started to inch toward 100% percent by late winter of 2019. By the time SJU met for spring practice this past April, Havelka was cutting well and setting his foot with comfort.
“I felt great,” Havelka said.
The good vibes, though, didn’t last long. During a basic non-contact drill early in the morning at the SJU Dome, he felt the same uneasy sensation and acutely painful sting and later found out he cracked the exact bone that was supposedly fully-healed in his left foot.
Havelka — who had seen a specialist in Eagan and was told he probably should have gone the surgical route the first time around — made the decision to have his foot repaired by OHS graduate, Randy Lewis, at Twin Cities Orthopedic and went under the knife this past spring and has accelerated his recovery timetable considerably.
“They did an awesome job,” Havelka said of Lewis and the staff at TCO. “It allowed me to come back to this summer. I have been doing as much as I can to get back for the fall as well.”
As the spring stretched into the summer and Havelka’s bone continued to fuse, he gradually became more comfortable with the basic foot-planting motions of baseball and football. By the beginning of July, there was little doubt he was going to be fully recovered in time for at least the Legion playoffs, so he scheduled his first bullpen session last week.
According to Havelka, the results were mixed.
“First bullpen, it was pretty rough,” Havelka said. “I mean, fastball felt fine and then I threw the curve and had absolutely no control over it. But it’s starting to get back to it. I mean, some pitches still get away but that’s part of the process. You just have to keep grinding and working with the coaches.”
With just a single less-than-spectacular throwing session under his belt, Havelka took the ball in the sixth inning of a tie game against Stewartville on Tuesday night. Facing the meat of Post 164’s lineup, he attacked the zone with his fastball and proceeded to strike out the first two batters he faced and retired five consecutive to begin his outing. After just two frames he had five strikeouts and had yielded just one baserunner, who reached on a throwing error.
With the go-ahead run standing at first base and two outs in the eighth, Havelka induced a harmless groundout to second base and put a bow in his excellent performance. He faced just 11 batters in three innings, finished with six strikeouts and didn’t allow a single hit.
And the curveball?
“You know, I just trusted fundamentals,” Havelka said. “I have been throwing (the curveball) my whole life, so just going back to the basics and getting back into that zone.”
Indeed, Havelka looked like a seasoned veteran on the mound in his return. Without knowing, it would have been impossible to tell that he hadn’t played in a baseball game in 424 days.