Zack Aukes grew up throwing a baseball.
The Pioneer High School senior already has signed a letter of intent to pitch at Oregon next season and could be selected in the Major League Baseball draft in June.
But on April 2, the left-hander felt more like a nervous freshman when he took the mound in the seventh inning against visiting River Valley with his team leading 7-1.
It was the first time he had pitched in a game in more than a year and nearly a year since he had surgery on his pitching elbow.
"There was a lot of adrenaline going, and I wasn't sure how things were going to work out," said Aukes, who walked the first two batters.
Pioneer coach Kevin Galart expected Aukes would be a little wild but also thought the umpire had squeezed the strike zone on a couple of pitches.
"He's got first and third, no outs and that look, 'I'm here, but am I ready for this?' " Galart said.
It turned out Aukes was ready.
Aukes struck out the next two batters, then got the third out when Austin Lopes tagged out a River Valley runner trying to score from third on a ball that hit the dirt and skipped away from the catcher.
"He had to battle, and I think that helped him even more than if he had gone 1-2-3," Galart said.
Aukes had a different perspective on his 23-pitch 2013 debut.
"I would have preferred 1-2-3 to keep the stress level down," Aukes said. "But it was great being on the mound again."
Last April, Aukes had the ulnar collateral ligament reconstructed in his elbow - more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, named after the former major-league pitcher who was the first to have what in 1974 was considered a miracle procedure.
"When I played, if someone needed Tommy John surgery, it was devastating to hear," said Galart, who pitched at Woodland High in the late 1980s and was drafted by the Montreal Expos. "You weren't sure if they were going to come back or not. Nowadays, it's a little easier. The comeback percentage is a lot higher."
Except those now making the comebacks are as likely to be youth and high school pitchers as college and big leaguers.
High school coaches like Galart agree that teenagers are throwing too many pitches over too short a time and with too little rest. The reason is baseball, like so many other sports, has turned into a year-round endeavor, especially for those, like Aukes, with college and pro aspirations.
Aukes has played on youth and travel teams, competed in showcases and even helped lead the USA Baseball National Under 14 team to a Pan American gold medal in Ecuador in 2009. He was a three-sport athlete - football, basketball and baseball - at Pioneer until his senior season.
"I've watched Zack grow up and, personally, I think he's thrown too much," said Galart, whose son Thomas also is a senior pitcher at Pioneer. "It's overuse that leads to Tommy John surgery."
Aukes initially chalked up the soreness he experienced in his elbow two summers ago to tendinitis.
"I decided to take the fall off from baseball, though I still played football and my arm felt fine," Aukes said of his junior season.
But during a baseball scrimmage last spring, Aukes heard a pop in his elbow and decided to have an MRI. That test, conducted by San Francisco Giants doctor Kenneth Akizuki, found a slight tear in his elbow ligament.
"When I heard I needed Tommy John surgery, I was really shocked," Aukes said.
While the 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation can be demanding - and it's considered the key to returning successfully from elbow surgery - Aukes said his biggest challenge was trying to stay upbeat.
"That's the first injury to happen to me," said Aukes, who had gone 4-2 with a 2.16 ERA as a sophomore. "It was tough sitting and watching last season. It's been a long 12 months, but I'm glad it's almost over."
This season, Aukes has played primarily at first base and in the outfield.
Galart's plan is to have Aukes pitch an inning or two of relief each week and, if all goes well, make a start before the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs begin May 13, should the Patriots qualify.
Aukes is one of 10 seniors on Pioneer's roster and one of four to sign a letter of intent, an impressive haul for a Division III school with little baseball history.
Fellow pitchers Robert Daugherty and Thomas Galart are headed to Washington and Nevada, respectively. Outfielder Marcus Vidales will play for Cal State Fullerton.
So this is a do-or-die season for the 9-5 Patriots, who are trying to dethrone five-time champion Yuba City in the Tri-County Conference while aiming for the school's second section baseball title and first since 2006, when the school was a couple of years old and competed in Division IV.
"When we first started as 11-year-olds, we were mediocre, middle of the pack," Aukes said of the seniors. "But we dedicated our summers and winters to getting better. Our ultimate goal since Day One at Pioneer has been to win a championship. So I'm trying to help any way I can."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.