MISSOULA — Missoula Mavericks senior Dane Fraser remembers hearing a pop when he was pitching last season. He thought something had happened to his arm, but it wasn’t until he threw the next pitch that he realized there was a real issue.
Fraser had torn the UCL in his pitching elbow, ending his season on the mound. He put off surgery until the end of the season and was relegated to playing first base, where he mostly had to worry about catching baseballs.
But as the season went on, Fraser began to lose the fun feeling he had playing baseball, not to mention his drop of about 40 points in his batting average and nearly 30 pounds as he stopped lifting weights and drinking protein shakes.
“I basically gave up on the season and screwed myself and my teammates,” Fraser said after helping the Mavs open the 2019 season with a doubleheader split against Great Falls on Sunday. “A lot of it was in my head. I just kept making excuses for myself. This year, I plan to get out there and make a big difference.”
Fraser made his debut in relief during the second game of the doubleheader at Lindborg-Cregg Field, tossing two innings of no-hit baseball and picking up the win in a 10-4 victory. He walked two batters and struck out three in addition to throwing a few wild pitches as he went to his cutter while working on his curveball and changeup.
“I felt pretty good,” Fraser said. “I felt like I was throwing decently. I definitely need to work on my accuracy for sure and start hitting my spots. I basically have a new arm.”
Fraser came into last season at 194 pounds but fell down to 165 after his injury, so he spent the offseason bulking up to 192 pounds because he feels he can hit and throw harder as he gets bigger. At the plate, he started the season 1 for 3 with an RBI double and a run scored.
Looking to aid the team wherever he’s needed, Fraser put in some work at catcher on Sunday, even though he may be playing third base or left field in college. He displayed his new arm there, too, when he threw out a runner who was trying to steal in the opener, a 9-5 loss.
“He looks athletic again,” Mavs manager Brent Hathaway said. “He’s mobile behind the plate. He’s got decent velocity on his pitches, good breaking ball and straight changes.”
Fraser’s motivation this year includes not only helping his team but repaying a favor to Hathaway. It was Hathaway, Fraser said, who gave his word to college coaches about Fraser’s potential despite the injury, and that led to him signing with Yakima Valley Community College.
But before Fraser could even return to the mound, he spent six months doing physical therapy to rehab his elbow, forearm and shoulder after surgery.
“I’m just looking to show that I still have it,” a reinvigorated Fraser said. “I just want to prove that I’m college material, like Hath was saying. Try to prove him right.”
Pitching is an area the Mavs have some experience but are trying to set a rotation. They had eight pitchers go anywhere from one to two innings during the doubleheader.
After Fraser, returner Brendon Hill tossed two hitless innings and newcomer Jake Lintner threw a no-hit inning to seal the two-hit win. The only runs Great Falls scored that game came off of starter Parker Stevens, who gave up four runs, just one earned, on two hits in the first two innings.
In the opener, Dylan Chalmers, Zach Hangas, Henry Felker and Stewart Long combined for six innings of four-hit ball without giving up an earned run. Things unraveled in the sixth inning, when Kellan Feeley gave up seven runs on five hits, four hit by pitches and one walk. It was a frame that could’ve ended earlier if a fly ball wasn’t just out of the right fielder’s reach, if a ball down the third base line was called foul instead of fair and if the third baseman won a footrace to the bag on a force play.
“When we got in a little bit of a jam in a tight situation, I thought our pitchers got tight, too,” Hathaway said. “I thought we loosened up and hit the ball better in the second game, at least more line drives, well-hit balls than in the first.”
Thomas Martin, who’s trying to earn the starting spot at second base where his brother played the past three years, impressed Hathaway with how comfortable he looked turning a double play. At the plate, he went 2 for 3 with two doubles and a run scored.
Tradd Richardson had a team-best three hits and Drew Stensrud drove in a team-high three runs as the Mavs played all 21 players who are competing for 18 roster spots. Freshman Charlie Kirgan closed the scoring by crushing an opposite-field RBI double.
“If we can just get enough innings under their belt where they relax and play with their true ability without being tight, then we can really see and make some good decisions,” Hathaway said of awarding starting spots. “Tonight was a good step in that direction.”