Friday, August 14, 2015

Bob Brainerd Catches Up with Former Panther Josh Uhen

Bob Brainerd from Time Warner Cable SportsChannel is not only a pro in front of the television camera, but he can do a pretty impressive job writing stories as well.

Recently, he caught up with former Milwaukee pitcher Josh Uhen, who is now on the roster for the Wisconsin TimberRattlers in Appleton, Wis., the Single A Minor League affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Uhen was selected by the Brewers in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft with the 152nd overall pick. That made him the highest-ever selection in Milwaukee program history, topping the previous mark of ninth round set in 2012. In his last season in a Panther uniform, Josh went 1-0 with a 3.80 ERA, recording four saves in 21 appearances.

The link to the official story is HERE.

A copy of the text is below.

Wisconsin's Own

by Bob Brainerd

It’s a conundrum that challenges every Wisconsin kid who burns with the passion to play baseball in the Midwest. How does one go about taking the field on a regular basis when, five months out of the calendar year, it’s covered with snow, not to mention, frigid temperatures unfit for comfortable play on the diamond? “I guess it’s one of those things where you don’t know anything different,” said Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Pitcher Josh Uhen, an Oshkosh native. “You start out playing in pretty cold weather and when you’re younger, the season doesn’t start as early. But once you get into middle school and travel ball you just layer up. And once you get into high school you have fall ball and that’s just different layers and a bunch of Under Armour to keep you warm.”

Uhen sparkled at Oshkosh North to earn him the opportunity to play at the next level, but he didn’t escape Mother Nature’s grip on the game. “When I played in Milwaukee there were games where I played and it was below 30 degrees with snow shoveled off the field,” said Uhen, who pitched for the Panthers for two seasons. “I don’t think you ever really get used to it, you just learn how to play through it.”

Uhen found himself back in the mix of the myriad of brutal spring weather when he was promoted to the roster in Appleton to start the 2015 season. Being the local product under scrutiny didn’t phase Uhen one bit. In fact, he embraced his homecoming and chance to pitch under the microscope. “Coming into it I thought it would feel different playing this close to home,” said Uhen. “But when I’m out here competing and I’m out here at the field every day you almost forget you are so close to home. My friends and family do a really good job when I’m here…they know I’m at work, they know I’m here to get a job done. It’s really not distracting or getting in my way of anything.”

Uhen was the media darling back in April, being poked and prodded about his return to his roots. Someone even dug up an old photo of Josh on the field at Fox Cities Stadium attending a Timber Rattlers game on his birthday. “It’s worked out, as far as I’m concerned, very well,” said Uhen. “It’s nice to see family and friends here more often and they get a chance to see me. But ultimately it’s the same game and it doesn’t feel any different than if I was throwing where I did in years past.”

Uhen has always felt right at home in the Fox Valley because that’s where his baseball beginnings developed. “I played, but didn’t play on any of the select teams, just Legion ball with my buddies,” said Uhen. “I ended up going to the Showtime Sports Team Wisconsin…my Dad said there was a tryout in Kimberly, let’s go up there. It ended up going well and that’s where I got a feeling of where I stacked up against other players in the state. It was the first time they took readings and timings and stats and all that stuff. Right after my junior year was when I could say I can get to the next level.”

Uhen played outfield and pitched at Oshkosh North and became a Third Team All-State player for his play during his senior season. College coaches took notice, including Head Coach Scott Doffek and Assistant Head Coach/Pitching Coach Cory Bigler at Milwaukee. They were helping to run a tryout in Appleton, saw Josh throw and extended an offer to join their Division 1 program.

“They gave me chance to earn spot and compete right away,” said Uhen. “When I got there it was an eye-opener seeing all the older guys. I was playing with fifth-year seniors and you can definitely tell this is the stage in your life where the maturing gets accelerated. In high school it was all about competing and you think you know a lot about the game. In college, you learn how to play the game and the speed of the game picks up and you’re forced to make adjustments a lot quicker.”

Everything was falling into place for Uhen. He adjusted to the learning curve of campus life in the Horizon League and anticipated big things on the mound when spring sprung in 2011. “My freshman fall went pretty solid and they had plans to make me a mid-week starter and try to work me into that,” said Uhen. “But over the winter, that’s when I developed some elbow stuff.”

Stuff. Serious stuff. Soreness so painful that Uhen had to face his fear and accept he needed Tommy John surgery to repair his damaged wing. A deflating detour before he ever threw a pitch for the Panthers. “I went from being on Cloud Nine to hearing the news and it was tough,” said Uhen. “Anytime they say your career could potentially be in jeopardy it opens your eyes. Initially I was upset but once you have the surgery, your mindset changes from ‘Why me?’ to ‘OK, now I need to do everything I can’ to get back to where I was at.”

The Uhen support staff was well armed to tackle the emotional part. Bigler, hooked his pitching prospect up with Dr. William Raasch, the Brewers Head Team Physician in Milwaukee. Everyone else in the Uhen circle rallied to make sure his path still navigated forward. “My parents have always been big supporters and been very positive through the tough times and my coaches did a good job in helping me out,” said Uhen. “Once I had the surgery, it’s kind of self-motivating. I think one of my better qualities is being able to motivate myself and work through things. I pushed through it and it worked out well.”

Uhen followed the instruction manual on how to rehab from elbow surgery to the letter, even if there were parts he felt like skipping over to push the process along to return him to the mound in quicker fashion.

“The initial throwing program starts out extremely basic throwing from 15 feet and only using your wrist.” Uhen began. “That progresses and it’s so gradual that you don’t even realize it. The first time where it was noticeably a turning point was my first max-effort bullpen. We were at San Diego State and it was my first scheduled live bullpen airing it out. Our coach wanted to get the gun on my pitches just to see where I was at. I finished 87, 88, 89, and I wasn’t freaked out but worried thinking what happened? But then the next week we were in Arkansas and I threw a bullpen and all the velocity was back. I think it was just my body adjusting and trusting myself, trusting my rehab.”

While Uhen was closely monitoring his numbers on the radar gun, he was cognizant to realize he was beginning from the beginning and going back to the very basics of pitching to regain what he worked so hard to establish.

“The biggest thing is learning to pitch again, and it’s learning to pitch again from the beginning and getting your command back after not throwing for a year,” said Uhen. “You have to get a feel for your release point on your breaking ball and changeup. I don’t think I got that back until another season or two later because I threw 12 maintenance innings that were controlled starts my redshirt freshman year, then my redshirts sophomore year I didn’t get a lot of repetition because I was the closer. So it took me until my first year of pro ball to get that repetition and settle in. They always say it takes you a year to get back from surgery and it might take another full year to get back to being a pitcher instead of just a thrower.”

All this steady progress was convincing enough for the Brewers to tab Uhen in the fifth round of the 2013 MLB Draft, the highest slot a Milwaukee Panther has ever been selected. He got a taste of professional baseball that year pitching in 14 games for the Brewers Arizona Rookie League squad, then advanced to Helena and the Pioneer League in 2014, where Uhen went 2-4 in 15 games. Josh was healthy, normal, minus all the “stuff.”

“The biggest thing for me is the one on one competition from within a team sport,” said Uhen. “You need those other guys behind you to make plays, but ultimately, it’s a battle between you and the hitter and to me it’s competition at one of its highest levels. That’s one of those things where you’re trying to beat that one guy and that’s what is really fun for me.”

And what could be more fun than a promotion to your home state, playing in a ballpark 15 minutes from home base? Uhen has come out of the Wisconsin bullpen providing relief or a bridge to the back end of a starting pitcher tandem. An inning here, an inning there, Uhen had an ERA of 3.16 into mid-June, striking out 27 and walking just seven in 19 outings. “There are days I’ve even forgotten I had the surgery,” said Uhen. “After four years, no pain. Maybe that first year back I would think about it every now and then but most of the time I forget I even had it.”

But how quickly a dream season can turn into a potential nightmare. On June 26, Uhen was rocked in a home game against Clinton for nine earned runs. His elbow felt funky, and thoughts of that “stuff” returning crept back into his mind. “I’d be lying if I said no,” said Uhen. “But it was the first time in four years I’ve had any little something wrong around there. I guess that’s why I wanted to make sure it was alright. I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong because the last time I did feel something in there, things were really wrong. I felt some discomfort and I talked to our trainer and we figured it was best to just shut it down and rehab a little bit and get things right instead of trying to push through it. Health trumps everything.”

The shutdown sidelined Uhen for the majority of July, but certainly a better exchange than the year of baseball he lost in college. Uhen has overcome his latest setback and also taught himself another lesson in ways to avoid a mound absence in the future. “Coming out of the bullpen you get put in situations where you’ve got to hurry up and get loose quickly so I’ve got to take it upon myself throughout the game to stay loose, prepare, continue to stretch and keep warm because sometimes you can get away from that and that’s when injuries can happen.”

The mission for the remainder of Uhen’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers experience is to remain healthy and continue to show the progress that the Brewers saw when he bounced back cleanly from a pitchers worst setback. Uhen will also lap up the luxury of heading back to his boyhood residence after the final out is recorded each night in Appleton.

“I have Brandon Diaz and Scott Lieser living with me too and it’s nice to get home cooked meals every now and then,” laughed Uhen. “It’s not as often as people might think because we’re at the field from 2pm until 11pm and I get home and my parents are in bed. I get up to come to the field and they’re at work so it’s really no different than having a different house family except for the fact they’re my parents. But it’s nice being able to stay in my own bed.”

When Josh Uhen rests his head on his familiar pillow his sleep state conjures up visions of one day pitching on a Major League mound. It’s the same dream every individual he shares a dugout with in Appleton has, with one exception. This is a Wisconsin kid, and a true blue Brewers fan, who admired the talents of Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, Jeromy Burnitz and Ronnie Belliard.

“You know what you’ve got to do to get the job done, but I think my dream might be a little different just because I grew up a fan going to County Stadium growing up and then Miller Park,” said Uhen. “Seeing Craig Counsell come home and get the opportunity to play for the Brewers and the welcome that he got I think it would be absolutely unreal to get the opportunity to play for the team that I got drafted by and the team that I’ve loved my whole life.”