Dragons pitcher fighting back after surgery, layoff

Dragons reliever Brian Hunter during a 2015 game against Fort Wayne. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF
Dragons reliever Brian Hunter during a 2015 game against Fort Wayne. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF

Patience is part of the game in minor league baseball. Some players have to wait longer than others to move up the ladder.

And then there’s pitcher Brian Hunter.

Drafted by the Reds in the ninth round in 2014, the right-hander came to Dayton in 2015 and was good enough in the first half of the season to land a spot in the Midwest League All-Star Game.

A few weeks later Hunter said he threw a pitch and “felt something odd.” Then in late July he knew it was something serious:

“My last outing was in West Michigan and I was out on the mound and felt kind of isolated there on the island. I was clearly injured and I knew it in my head … I was in pain.”

Hunter had Tommy John surgery on his elbow in August 2015 but was back on the mound in late July of last year, with limited success, for the Reds rookie level team in Billings, Montana.

“It’s hard not to think ‘what if,’ ” Hunter said. “I know you shouldn’t think that way because life throws things at you, but now I’ve been hurt, I’m on the way back, and I’ve just got to be patient.”

Hunter said there is one part of the mind game that he doesn’t really worry about since the injury.

“The fear of injury is less now,” he said. “It gave me a different lens to look through at my career. It shows you that it’s not the end-all, be-all and there are other avenues in life so you can’t take what we have here for granted.”

The 24-year-old says he’s never been injured playing baseball, and he admits his down time gave him a chance to think about life after baseball and the career he hopes to have as a physical therapist.

“It was a unique perspective going through that side of being a patient, and understanding a little better what they go through,” Hunter said.

Hunter has pitched out of the bullpen in three games since joining the Dragons a week ago. He has two saves in as many chances.

“I had a long road back,” Hunter said. “It’s great to be back here in Dayton at this stadium in front of all these fans. I’m really happy to be here.”

Dragons 5, Hot Rods 4: Michael Beltre's two-out infield single brought in John Sansone from third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Dragons scored their third walk-off win of the season, delighting the latest sellout crowd at Fifth Third field and snapping a two-game losing streak.

With the Dayton win and a loss by West Michigan, the Dragons moved back into sole possession of first place in the Midwest League East Division. They lead WM by one game and South Bend by a game and a half. The Dragons are 16-4 over their last 20 games and 27-13 overall.

The top two teams in the division over the 70-game first half make the playoffs.