It was such a fluky injury. Ako Thomas, during the series opener against Indiana in mid-April, was down 0-1 in the count when he swung right through a fastball.
Yes, swung right through.
Yet, he knew something was wrong, as a sharp pain shot through his left hand. He motioned to the Michigan dugout that there was a problem, but was told to try and finish the at-bat. Amazingly, he did, with a single.
“Oh, it hurt,” Thomas said with a laugh. “But I still had some adrenaline going.
“I don’t think we scored, then I came in the dugout and tried to go back on defense. But I ended up telling them, ‘I think something’s really wrong. I can’t squeeze my glove.’ ”
Tests showed a broken hamate bone in the hand, and surgery was required — figuring to end the season of the Big Ten’s leading hitter.
And it would’ve, too, had it not been for some unique collaboration between Michigan’s training staff and its mechanical engineering department.
While doing some rehab, Thomas ordered some batting gloves with a little extra padding in the palm, but it wasn’t nearly enough. That’s where Ellen Arruda, a 25-year member of the Michigan staff, came into play, to custom design a batting glove that would lessen the impact when Thomas swung the bat — and absorb the blow of balls on defense, too.
Without the new glove, Thomas’ season would’ve been shot.
“I probably wouldn’t have been out there, to be honest,” Thomas said over the phone recently, after some knee tendinitis cut his Cape Cod League short. “It’s a very painful injury, and that glove really helped.
“I plan on wearing it next year, as well.”
Lending a hand
Arruda is a key player in the Exercise and Sport Science Initiative, launched last year to partner between the athletics department and the research wing of the university. Arruda, a professor of mechanical engineering and macromolecular science and engineering is one of about 100 staff members involved in the project.
The big project under way is with football helmets, as Michigan looks to become a leading player in head safety. Former Michigan football players Michael Jocz and Ben Pliska were involved in that research and development, before recently graduating.
“I’m working with helmet OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and material suppliers to get our design strategies into current helmets and improve them,” Arruda said of the project, that has received some funding from the NFL. “They would be available for anybody.”
The project also works with coaches on challenges they face, and is doing some work in the swimming and running department, too.
But helmets were the main, heavily publicized focus of the initiative, at least until Thomas’ injury was brought to Arruda’s attention.
She was brought the glove Thomas had been wearing, was told of the injury and the scar that needed the extra protection, and got to work on a custom glove. In the palm area, she made an incision and removed the padding, and replaced it with a bigger, softer piece of protection — with two materials, one soft like foam and another a little harder, like what you’d see on a windshield wiper.
The glove was then sent back to Thomas, but it didn’t cover the correct spot. So Arruda shifted it over slightly, to more cover the scar.
And Thomas tried it again, with it taking some getting used to, just from the look alone. It looked like a doughnut was sewn in to the palm.
“It was a little weird,” said Thomas, a rising junior from Chicago who plays second base. “And I still had a little pain, but I was just thinking, if I didn’t have this glove, I’d probably feel the whole effects.
“I wouldn’t have been out there. It probably would’ve been another week or two before I’d have been to get out there.”
But time wasn’t on his side, or Michigan’s.
Thomas returned for the first game of the Michigan State series in mid-May, then was able to play in the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Regionals. In all, he played five games after returning from injury, collecting four more hits.
He batted .354 on the season, with a .462 on-base percentage, both good for tops in the conference. He stole 23 bases in 28 attempts, another area where the glove helped, as he often slid head-first into second base.
Thomas was the Wolverines’ leadoff hitter this season, a fantastic year as Michigan went 42-17 and finished second in the Big Ten, before losing its final four games, two in the Big Ten tournament and two in the NCAAs.
Coach Erik Bakich marveled at Thomas’ toughness, saying he would’ve found a way to play even if not for the glove, which Bakich described, in layman’s terms, as a “shock absorber.”
Two of Thomas’ teammates suffered similar injuries in the past, and expressed regret they didn’t have the glove at their disposal. Thomas has two pair, and plans to continue wearing them, at-bat, under his glove in the field and while running the bases.
Thomas, 20, figures to be a huge part of next year’s team, which will be a lot younger and littered with inexperience, after 11 Michigan players (seven juniors) were taken in the Major League Baseball Draft. All 11 signed, plus two previous recruits.
While Arruda and her colleagues continue to work on getting their football-helmet safety measures on the market, it’s unclear if they will do the same with the baseball glove collaboration.
They haven’t yet done any market research to see if there’s a need, but that might be coming.
“It sounds like this is not an uncommon injury,” Arruda said. “There may be an opportunity to get it out there.
“It’s really preventing any contact between the bat and the scar. It’s shielding the scar, but it’s also reducing any sort of shock that might be associated with making contact, too.”
Basically, think about making poor contact between a metal bat and a baseball in frigid temperatures — and the sting your hands feel. Everyone who’s played baseball has had that feeling, and it hurts. If Thomas made contact without the glove, he’d be in more pain than that.
Arruda hadn’t heard of Thomas before she was approached by Michigan trainers, and she knew time was of the essence — so she worked quickly to come up with something to get him on the field.
In fact, they still haven’t met, but they hope to soon.
“Tell him, ‘I’m glad the glove works,’” Arruda said, with a chuckle.
Said Thomas: “I would like to meet her and thank her.”