Ex-Chaparral pitcher Danny Coulombe hikes arduous trail to MLB

A picture of Danny Coulombe pitching for Chaparral High School in the 2008 Chaparral yearbook. (Special to the Independent/Ben Leibowitz)

Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Danny Coulombe starred for Chaparral High School when the Firebirds won the Class 4A Division I state title in 2008.

But his playing career after graduating, and before ultimately reaching the big leagues, was a winding road fraught with setbacks that even forced Mr. Coulombe to contemplate quitting baseball.

Mr. Coulombe said he got serious about baseball around seventh and eighth grade, but that the sport was not his first love as a kid — that distinction went to soccer and basketball.

His baseball skill started to bloom during his freshman year at Chaparral. As a sophomore, he began working with Phoenix-area pitching coach Steve Ontiveros to continue honing his talent.

Coach Ontiveros is the head instructor at Players Choice Academy in Scottsdale and a 10-year MLB veteran who earned All-Star recognition with the Athletics in 1995. He pitched in 207 career games (73 starts), notching a career 3.67 ERA.

Mr. Coulombe credits his signature curveball to Coach Ontiveros’s tutelage.

“As Danny matured and started getting his velocity up his junior year, and then eventually his senior year, he was pretty much dominant,” Coach Ontiveros said.

High school years

In high school, Mr. Coulombe averaged more than two strikeouts per inning during his junior and senior seasons.

“He’s probably the best pitcher in Chaparral history,” said Cody Yount, who played first base for Chaparral’s 2008 title team. “I would say his biggest thing was just quiet confidence. Everybody was confident when he took the mound that we were going to win.”

Jerry Dawson was the head baseball coach at Chaparral when Mr. Coulombe and Mr. Yount helped lead the team to the state title.

Danny Coulombe

Coach Dawson, now the pitching coach at Yavapai College, has coached baseball in some capacity for nearly 50 years and has seen a number of his players make it to the Major Leagues. Coach Dawson said Mr. Coulombe’s curveball was something special.

“Best left-handed breaking ball I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Coach Dawson recalled a game from Mr. Coulombe’s high school days when he faced off against Cactus High School and a pitcher named Ryan Carpenter — a fellow southpaw who recently made his MLB debut for the Detroit Tigers.

Coach Dawson said he remembers the Cactus lineup threatening to take a big lead with the bases loaded, no outs and the heart of the order coming up after already scoring.

But against those 3-4-5 guys in the batting order, Coach Dawson said Mr. Coulombe threw nine straight breaking balls resulting in three straight strikeouts to escape the inning virtually unscathed.

Coach Dawson said Mr. Coulombe wasn’t a vocal player, but “when he had something to say, guys listened.”

USC struggles

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Mr. Coulombe in the 17th round of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft following a high school career that culminated with a state championship.

Instead of going pro, however, Mr. Coulombe accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Southern California.

“I had huge expectations because I was an All-American, and they were like ‘you’re going to come in and be our Friday night starter, Saturday night starter.’ And obviously none of that worked out,” Mr. Coulombe said.

His career at USC lasted all of eight innings. He did manage to strike out 13 hitters in that brief tenure, but he also surrendered 12 earned runs.

As Coach Ontiveros tells it, certain members of the coaching staff at USC encouraged a change in Mr. Coulombe’s mechanics, which led to a loss in velocity as well as soreness in his shoulder that spread to his elbow.

“When he was heading off to college, off to USC, I thought he was just going to be another phenom coming out of that school,” Coach Ontiveros said. “But, as is often the case, a lot of the college coaches will change things about their students, their athletes they brought in, which makes no sense to me. You recruited them. You liked what he did. Why would you want to change that?”

When the team went on the road, Mr. Coulombe went to see his old coach asking for help. He wasn’t the same pitcher who baffled opposing batters in high school.

“That was my first time I got to see him since he left, and I didn’t recognize him,” Coach Ontiveros said. “All the things that made Danny, Danny were not even visible.”

With his scholarship in jeopardy and his pitching mechanics unrecognizable, Mr. Coulombe left USC and returned home after one season.

“That summer I was like, ‘You know what? … I don’t even think I really want to play anymore,’” he said.

Finding a lost skill

Back in Arizona, Mr. Coulombe attended South Mountain Community College for his sophomore year, where he primarily served as a hitter. He said his pitching ability was stripped away.

“I literally, like, forgot how to throw,” Coulombe said.

Referencing Mr. Coulombe’s struggles, Coach Ontiveros said, “It was the dangedest thing I ever saw.”

Essentially having missed out on his first two years of college eligibility as he fought through arm problems, Mr. Coulombe questioned any future in baseball.

“After South Mountain I was like, ‘Man, I’m done with this game,’” he said. “I started hating baseball just because I was always around the team but couldn’t play because I was always hurt.”

Mr. Coulombe said his father convinced him not to give up.

“My dad ended up being like, ‘Let’s just give it one more shot. … Let’s just put everything you have into it … see if you have any interest in coming back,’” he recalled.

Jerry Dawson

Mr. Coulombe and his support system were determined to rediscover the magic of his left arm. He spent the summer working with his previous coaches.

“We had these long heart-to-hearts,” Coach Ontiveros said. “Like, I’ll get you back, your body will remember, but we have to literally delete from your muscle memory all these actions that are taking place.”

Mr. Coulombe needed to be rebuilt and that meant getting back to, as Coach Dawson said while emphasizing each word: “beginning, baby group, here is how you throw a baseball.”

Dawson said “a lot of kids would have just run away from that,” but Mr. Coulombe worked to regain his near unhittable pitching arm.

Within a couple of months, Coach Ontiveros said, Mr. Coulombe’s body started to remember its previous form, his velocity improved and the angle he had on his once-devastating curveball came back.

Returning to college

Mr. Coulombe had a scholarship offer at the time to play at Texas Tech. He said he didn’t want to get there and fight through health problems or lack the ability to perform at a high level, but he felt comfortable enough throwing a bullpen session to make his decision.

His velocity was only reaching the low 80s, but Mr. Coulombe opted to give baseball another shot.

“I went to Tech and I remember some of the guys on the team being like, ‘Dude, we heard when you were coming, that you pump 93-95 (mph).’ And I was like, ‘Uhhh, no,’” Mr. Coulombe recalled. “It was funny. It was very humbling.”

Though his velocity wasn’t reaching the 90s as it once had, Mr. Coulombe pitched well in his first year at Texas Tech.

“Once he got on the mound over there, he started just dealing again,” Coach Ontiveros said. “Then that’s when I think his elbow just said, ‘I’m done.’”

After four starts in which he struck out 28 batters in 20 innings, Mr. Coulombe tore a ligament in his pitching elbow, which required Tommy John surgery.

Faced with yet another reason to quit the sport, Mr. Coulombe said he needed to honor his scholarship at Texas Tech.

“I gave everything I had into that rehab,” he said.

Still, Mr. Coulombe was at a crossroads.

He stayed in Lubbock, Texas all summer to rehab, all while working at an internship and taking four summer classes to catch up on his degree. The left-hander was thinking about a reality beyond baseball.

Coincidentally, Coach Ontiveros underwent his own Tommy John surgery during his playing days. That experience allowed Coach Ontiveros to provide Mr. Coulombe with advice.

“I remember when I was going through it, there was so much mental anguish,” Coach Ontiveros said. “Not so much physical anguish, you just deal with the physicality of it.”

Medical advances have allowed scores of baseball players to return to form following Tommy John surgery. According to three separate studies published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine from 2013-14, approximately 80 percent of MLB players who had the surgery were able to return to pitching.

“I know firsthand what it’s going to take, and it’s not a death toll,” Ontiveros said. “You know you’re going to come back, it’s just going to take you a year.”

Mr. Coulombe told his coaches at Texas Tech that he wasn’t going to take his scholarship for his senior season. All he wanted was an opportunity to walk on to the team that winter as he focused primarily on attaining his degree. He said he was planning to take 23 credit hours that fall.

Mr. Coulombe returned to the mound less than a year after his surgery. He pitched well yet again as a senior, and despite another injury scare — torn scar tissue coupled with the low velocity — Mr. Coulombe’s baseball career seemed to be getting back on track.

“I was drafted out of high school by the Dodgers, and one of the Dodgers scouts saw me and he was like, ‘You know what? I think that maybe he could get back to where he was,’” Mr. Coulombe said.

On to the majors

The Dodgers took a chance on Mr. Coulombe, selecting him in the 25th round of the 2012 MLB Draft.

Danny Coulombe (Special to the Independent/Oakland Athletics)

From there, he made his way to a Dodgers camp, where he witnessed many of the other pitchers throwing 100 mph. Mr. Coulombe’s fastball was clocked in the mid-80s.

Nevertheless, he latched on with the Dodgers organization and saw his velocity steadily climb.

“By the end of the year I was throwing 91-93 (mph). So, they were like, ‘Ooh, we’ve got something here,’” he said.

Mr. Coulombe credited his recovered heater to throwing every day and finally being healthy again. Despite some initial struggles in the minor leagues, the Dodgers called up Mr. Coulombe near the end of the 2014 season. He made his MLB debut Sept. 16, 2014 against the Colorado Rockies, pitching a scoreless inning and collecting his first career Major League strikeout.

The following year, the Oakland A’s acquired Mr. Coulombe from the Dodgers for cash considerations.

“I think the biggest thing in baseball — by far, as a young player — is opportunity,” Mr. Coulombe said of the transaction.

“The A’s offer a ton of that. And I am so thankful to be with them. I mean, the Dodgers are great, they treated me great, they called me up and everything. But, just to be real, if I was with them, I never would have been able to be up for a full year last year.”

With the opportunity to pitch at the big-league level in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Coulombe appeared in 72 games last year (51.2 innings pitched). He notched a 3.48 ERA and carved a niche as one of the team’s most reliable bullpen arms.

In 2016 with the A’s (35 games), Mr. Coulombe struck out 54 batters in 47.2 innings and notched a 4.53 ERA. He’s once again on Oakland’s 25-man roster for 2018.

“I was really, really glad to see him traded to Oakland only from the respect that he needed a chance,” Coach Dawson said. “And once he got the chance, he took advantage of it.”

Looking back at his decision to play baseball at USC, where the hardships started, Mr. Coulombe said he was appreciative of the life lessons it taught him.

“I think that was really good for me,” he said. “To go there and fail.”

Editor’s Note: Ben Leibowitz is a student-journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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