It's approximately 300 feet to go from the bullpen area to the mound at Orange Coast College's Wendell Pickens Field, but for sophomore pitcher Gus Culpo, his trek to OCC began five years ago, thousands of miles away and it has been anything but a leisurely stroll.
As a sophomore pitcher out of Rhode Island's Bishop Hendricken High School, Culpo was an up-and-coming righty with improving stuff, but, injuries began to creep up.
"It started with some elbow issues that turned out to be bone spurs that I had to have removed my sophomore year," Culpo said. "Once we got that fixed, I was feeling a little better, but I knew my UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) was going to be a problem and sure enough, it became one."
That following summer, before his junior year of high school, Culpo had UCL reconstruction, otherwise known as "Tommy John Surgery", keeping Culpo on the sidelines for 18 months. "Even after I recovered from that, I really didn't get any offers, so I decided to pitch one year of graduate school and there, I started to get back to the pitcher I knew I could be."
At the Worcester Academy, located in Worcester, MA, Culpo remained pain-free and helped lead his team to the New England Prep Championship and with that, along came offers to pitch at the four-year level.
"I had some offers from a few East Coast schools and decided on the University of Pittsburgh," Culpo said. "But even before getting there, I could tell my shoulder was not feeling well. In trying to compensate for my elbow, I began to add more stress to my shoulder and it started to feel very fatigued.
After working through part of his freshman year at Pitt, Culpo's worst fear was again realized … another major injury. "I remember the doctor told me I had a torn labrum and needed surgery," Culpo said. "He told me that the chances of a full recovery were about 20% and even less for me since I had Tommy John surgery already. That was hard to hear and I had a hard time dealing with that news."
More surgery … more recovery … more rehabilitation for Culpo. His only appearance for Pitt came on March 14, 2016 against the University of New Orleans and realistically, it could've been his final competitive pitch.
Culpo wanted to keep pitching and he needed an opportunity at a school who would not only understand his situation, but to also have the patience to let him recuperate fully and also know that a full recovery simply might not happen.
He chose Orange Coast College.
"I have two sisters that live out here in Southern California and I wanted to come to a place where I had family close by and Orange Coast seemed like the perfect fit for me," Culpo said. "I talked to the coaches and they've been so great at allowing me to be a part of this team, even when I couldn't do much to help the team. I could've easily been cut here and I would've totally understood why, but I was able to stick around and I've worked hard to get back out there.
"I received a lot of encouragement, especially from my dad who told me to keep believing," Culpo said. "The baseball team's motto here at Coast has always been 'Never Ever Give Up' and that's something I've tried to live by as I've gone through this process."
After a year-plus of more recovery and rehabilitation, Culpo's hard work and dedication finally paid off for him. After 725 days since his last appearance in a collegiate game, Culpo took to the mound for the Pirates on March 9 against Santa Ana College. While it was a "mop-up" type of performance, it was the appearance of a lifetime and it was a moment not missed on Culpo.
"Honestly, I couldn't even feel my legs when I got out there," Culpo said with a laugh. "Before that, my last appearance was against the University of New Orleans (on March 14, 2016) and it was great just to get back out there again, especially after nearly having it taken away from me."
OCC head coach John Altobelli couldn't be happier to have Culpo back on the mound. "You watch a kid like Gus deal with not one, not two, but three surgeries and it really motivates the rest of our team and even the coaches that are out here," he said. "You couldn't ask for a nicer kid and to see him battle and overcome with such a fantastic and positive approach, I have nothing but respect and admiration for him."
Pitching coach Tim Matz saw something special in Culpo even before he could fully show what he could do. "I remember watching him pitch for the first time and while the attention was on the person he was playing catch with, I couldn't help but notice Culpo and his long, fluid motion," he said. "What he's gone through and the fact that it hasn't affected his dream or desire to pitch at the highest level speaks volumes on his character. He's always been here, putting in the time and effort and it's been up to us to show him patience and allow him to take his time and be really diligent in his rehab process."
Following that two-inning stint against the Dons on March 9, the Pirates have gone 21-6 after a slow 10-7 start to the season and Culpo has been a major factor in the team's turnaround.
"We started the season kind of banged up as a pitching staff and getting Gus back in the mix allowed the rest of the guys to find their roles and we've been a better team for it," Matz said. "He has really lifted the rest of the staff up and him coming back to pitch for us has really made a difference."
The numbers speak for themselves. In 11 appearances for the Pirates, Culpo is 3-0 with a save and a 3.20 ERA. In 25 1/3 innings, he has allowed only nine earned runs on 24 hits with nine walks and 31 strikeouts. OCC is 10-1 in games which Culpo has seen action.
"His ability to make adjustments on the fly when he's out there is his biggest strength," assistant coach Jeff Piaskowski said of Culpo. "If he's out of the strike zone, he can figure things out and get right back in there and that's something a lot of guys can't do. He's had an amazing turnaround, which is an extension of his relentless hard work. I couldn't be more proud of him."
In addition to Culpo's success with the Pirates, other four-year programs are taking notice and following his Coast career, expect to see the right-hander on the mound at another top-quality program.
"I'm a bit skinnier than I was when all this started, so I still feel like I can get bigger and stronger and my stuff will continue to improve," Culpo said. "But after hitting 88-91 mph coming into this year, I've been able to reach 93 this year so I'm definitely getting there."
But first thing's first … Culpo wants to help this Pirate team reach the State Final Four, a goal that was missed by last year's club after falling in the Southern California Sectional playoffs to El Camino in heartbreaking fashion.
"To be a part of that team and not to be able to help is something that still motivates me this year," Culpo said. "If we can make it to State, this will be for not only this group, but for the 2017 team that came up short and to all of the other great teams OCC has produced that just wasn't able to get there.
"OCC means the world to me," Culpo continued. "They have given me this opportunity and it's something I'm not going to take for granted, especially after it was almost taken away from me. I can't thank the coaching staff or my teammates enough for sticking with me and letting me be a part of this team. I will forever be grateful for Orange Coast College for giving me this opportunity."