Kenzie Fowler won't give in
It was a long road back, but Kenzie Fowler had retraced her steps along its full length by the time she toed the pitching rubber in a game against Alabama in the season's second week. She had thrown a few innings against lesser competition the previous weekend, her first pitches in a real game in nearly two calendar years, but a home date at Arizona's Hillenbrand Stadium against a national contender like the Crimson Tide was a different kind of moment.
There aren't many stages bigger than a big game in Tucson, Ariz., when the sun sets and a few thousand fans settle in.
Two innings into a relief appearance that evening, she already had three strikeouts and a developing rhythm. With one out, in went the pitch to an Alabama batter. And back it came, in a hurry.
"Yeah, I got hit in the head," Fowler explained. "That was cool."
Even though it was a night game, Fowler wore the visor that is always atop her head during games. The ball clipped it and then went off her head, at which point the ricochet was fielded by shortstop Kellie Fox, who threw to first for the out. Teammates, coaches and staff gathered around Fowler, who soon jogged off the field under her own power.
"It was just hard to look at and see it," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. "You think about the odds of that happening to her, of all people."
She was finished for the weekend, but she wasn't done.
She prefers to choose the latter moment herself, no matter what life or softball bats send her way.
"My career has been a little abnormal, I think," Fowler said.
Give her an award for understatement.
Before she even got to Arizona, Fowler had to come through a struggle with blood clots that threatened not just her pitching career but her life when she was hospitalized, including time in intensive care, and endured multiple surgeries at 16 years old. That behind her and her health restored, she went 38-9 with a 1.53 ERA and 371 strikeouts in 284 1/3 innings as a college freshman, earned All-American accolades and helped the Wildcats reach the best-of-three final round in the Women's College World Series.
Near the end of a sophomore season in which she was posting numbers similar to her debut season's, she was struck in the head by a foul ball while sitting in the dugout and missed nearly three weeks with a concussion.
A season later, she pitched through back pain all season and her production suffered for it. Arizona finished .500 in the Pac-12, its first nonwinning record in the Pac-10 or Pac-12 era, and lost in a super regional for the second season in a row. Fowler's physical discomfort eventually led to lumbar microdiscectomy (LMD) surgery in the fall to repair a herniated disk and a decision to redshirt the 2013 season rather than rush her recovery.
At what was to be the natural end of her college career, she remained stuck in limbo.
Fowler arrived in college softball as the rare talent whose legend preceded her rather than awaited her. Even by the standards of a program like Arizona, with its eight national championships and its lineage of pitching stars like Susie Parra, Nancy Evans, Jennie Finch and Alicia Hollowell, she was a big deal. She was the high school player of the year in Arizona in three successive seasons and the national player of the year in back-to-back seasons. She averaged better than two strikeouts per inning in her prep career and had a 0.04 ERA as a senior.
What Maya Moore was in basketball when she arrived at Connecticut or what current Virginia standout and U.S. international Morgan Brian is in soccer, Fowler was in softball. She was next. Clearly, obviously, inevitably.
Everyone always says I've had so many ups and downs. I don't really look at it that way. I just kind of ride the roller coaster which is athletics.Kenzie Fowler
"I don't think people realize how much she went through to try to throw the last couple of years that she had," Candrea said. "And then, yeah, after the freshman year you're thinking, boy, you've got one. Sometimes you just never know how it's going to work out. I think in looking at it in retrospect, I'm just happy right now that she is healthy, she's smiling, she is enjoying the game once again. To me, that's the journey that we've been on with her."
Five years on, she is here. That will do.
"Kenzie's one of the strongest people," junior Hallie Wilson said. "It would have been so easy, and nobody would have questioned her -- not for one second -- had she just decided to be done. Everybody would have understood."
At times during the worst of the pain, she thought her career might already be over. She met with Candrea at one point and told him she didn't think she could make it back.
He told her if she wanted to come back and throw a few innings in relief, she could. If she wanted to ditch the physical wear and tear from pitching and play outfield, she could. Whatever she wanted to do, whatever she could do, there would be a place for her.
"I think that was the moment when I was like, 'OK, I don't have to put up 15 no-hitters. If I can pitch two innings a game, if that's what helps the team, I'm going to do that,'" Fowler said. "I think that type of mentality, kind of starting over, has helped me reinvent myself as a player and not think about my freshman year, putting up all these numbers, leading the team, putting them on my back. Just be a contributor. Do whatever you can to help the team win."
This is where we find her this season, not as the face of a program or a pitcher who will pile up close to 300 innings, but as one of five options in the circle. Through this past weekend's Pac-12 opening series against UCLA, she has started just five of the team's 29 games and is third among its pitchers with 38 2/3 innings in 12 total appearances.
She worried at one point about what might happen if she returned and flamed out, if she might be better off leaving the game with her memories of life at the top intact. She had to come to terms with the possibility of not being the pitcher she used to be, which still doesn't mean she can't be the pitcher Arizona needs to get back to the World Series.
Hollowell, the all-time great who is now in her second season as the team's pitching coach, believes all Fowler lost was time.
"What I see with the talent level she's at, I think she's still that pitcher, that dominant one she was as a freshman," Hollowell said. "I think the exciting thing is now she's smarter, she's stronger, she's found new ways to approach pitching where she can mentally get those positive reinforcements. I think she's going to get back right on track.
"Taking a year off and not throwing to hitters and having that aggressive mindset for a whole year, it takes some time to get back into it and get back to attacking and seeing positive results. I honestly believe that as this season goes on, she's going to get stronger and stronger and get right back to where she needs to be come postseason."
Walks, which were a bugaboo for Fowler even as a freshman, remain a problem. While she's striking out a batter per inning this season, she's also walking a batter per inning. She was effective in two extended appearances in the series against UCLA but ultimately suffered from the runners she put on base. But perhaps her experiences will yet prove useful there, too.
"She feels like we can back up her," Wilson said. "She isn't afraid to put the ball over the plate, and I feel like in the past, maybe she was a little bit. We have a great defense and we're all right there behind her every single day.
"We're here for her a lot of the time because she is our mama bear."
As a pitcher at her peak, Fowler was easier to admire than emulate. Too much of what made her special came with the original genetic package. As someone who stuck it out, as someone who keeps getting up, there is something much more approachable, more relatable about her.
"Everyone always says I've had so many ups and downs," Fowler said. "I don't really look at it that way. I just kind of ride the roller coaster which is athletics. Stuff like that is going to happen. There are so many other people that have had worse things or had more up-and-down moments and emotional highs, emotional lows.
"But I'm really excited to be back."