North Carolina pitcher Gianluca Dalatri considers himself lucky, knowing he could have been out 12 months, not 12 weeks.
When the elbow on Dalatri’s right, throwing arm was aching in February, an immediate fear was it might be a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament. That would mean one thing: Tommy John surgery, with a recovery time of a year.
Tyler Holton of Florida State and Steven Gingery of Texas Tech both played with Dalatri on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer. Both star left-handers suffered UCL tears early this season and underwent Tommy John surgery, their seasons done.
But the news for Dalatri was much better. “I was pretty blessed,” he said.
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MRI testing revealed a stress reaction, not a tear. It was more an overuse injury, although something new for the sophomore being counted on to be the Tar Heels’ ace this season.
“It was the first time I had problem with my arm,” Dalatri said. “In high school I really prided myself on durability. That was one of my biggest things all through high school, that I never missed an outing. This is the first time I’ve really ever faced an obstacle like that.”
Dalatri was shut down after two starts this season, when he said he pitched at “about 60 percent” and lost both games. No one could say if he would recover quickly enough to pitch again this season, though there was always the hope he’d be back for the ACC Championship and NCAA tournament.
Dalatri made it back. He pitched four scoreless innings Saturday against Virginia Tech, in the Tar Heels’ final regular-season game, and is scheduled to pitch Friday against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament.
A 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park ended the Tar Heels’ chances of winning the ACC title after coming in the No. 1 overall seed and Coastal Division winner. The Tar Heels (37-18) now are pointing to the NCAA tournament, and UNC coach Mike Fox wanted another start from Dalatri before the NCAAs.
“You have to have that mindset you’re going to be there,” Dalatri said. “Whether it’s in the ACC tournament, whether in an NCAA regional, I thought I was going to come back. I thought that was going to be an option.”
Dalatri warmed up for the Virginia Tech game by facing 12 batters and throwing 42 pitches in practice early last week, and Fox and pitching coach Robert Woodard were not going to push it in his return game.
Dalatri struck out the first batter and had two Ks in the first inning. The radar gun had his fastball in the 90s.
“It was amazing to me after such a long layoff,” Fox said. “He looked like the same Luca to me.”
Dalatri pleaded to stay in the game more than four innings as UNC won 6-1, but the coaching staff wasn’t listening. It was 47 pitches and out.
“He looked good,” Fox said. “The ball came out of his hand good, he felt good. The most important thing was he felt good the next day.”
At 6-6 and 256 pounds, Dalatri is an imposing figure on the mound. In high school, at Christian Brothers (N.J.) Academy., he was unbeatable — 30-0 in three prep seasons and twice named the Gatorade player of the year in New Jersey. As a senior he had 118 strikeouts and four walks.
Dalatri struck out 15 against Radford as a freshman last season, the first UNC pitcher since Matt Harvey in 2010 to fan 15 in a game. He was 7-3 with a 3.34 earned-run average and 85 strikeouts in a team-high 97 innings pitched, earning Freshman All-America honors from Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, D1 Baseball and Perfect Game.
Dalatri started against Michigan in the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional and did his part, allowing one run on five hits in an 8-1 win. That staved off elimination for the Tar Heels, but a second loss to Davidson in the regional ended their season.
If Dalatri continues to look like "the same Luca,” the Tar Heels again have a big weapon for this year's NCAAs.
“It has been a 12-week journey for him,” Fox said.