ST. PETERSBURG — As Tyler Zombro scaled the mound Sunday afternoon at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va., players and coaches from the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tides poured out of both dugouts and made their way onto the field. They stood and cheered, all for the same reason — celebrating the mere fact that Zombro was about to pitch.
Last June 3, Zombro was pitching for Triple-A Durham against the same Norfolk team when he was struck on the right side of his head, just above his ear, by a 104 mph line drive. He underwent emergency brain surgery that night at Duke University Hospital, a 2 1/2-hour procedure that left him with 16 plates and 36 screws stabilizing his skull.
Now, Zombro is back, his full-circle comeback complete. The 27-year-old right-hander worked around a leadoff double in a scoreless second inning for the Bulls on Sunday afternoon, his first regular-season appearance since the terrifying incident that unfolded last summer.
“For Z to be able to come back to this point is really incredible and a little emotional for many of us. Not that long ago, we were faced with one of the scariest things one could witness on a baseball field,” Rays vice president of baseball operations Carlos Rodriguez said. “We weren’t certain if he’d be able to walk or talk, let alone play baseball again. To see how hard he’s worked to get to this point speaks to Z and his determination and resiliency. It’s a special moment for him, his family and the organization.”
Zombro joined the Durham pitching staff on Wednesday, when he was reinstated from the Minor League injured list. He had been healthy all spring, as he reported to Minor League camp like any other pitcher, but he needed a little more time to rebuild his arm strength considering how late in the offseason he was cleared to pitch.
He proved to be healthy throughout Spring Training, even appearing in a Grapefruit League game for the Rays against the Red Sox on March 26 in Fort Myers, Fla. The only difference you might see in Zombro now is in his cap. The righty now wears a protective Kevlar insert with padding underneath it, and he has a small flap sticking out to cover his fractured zygomatic bone.
After allowing a leadoff double to Patrick Dorrian on Sunday, Zombro retired Richie Martin, Jahmai Jones and Kyle Stowers in order. He threw 14 pitches, eight of them for strikes.
“It’s amazing,” said Rays reliever Phoenix Sanders, a teammate of Zombro’s since 2017 who was in the Bulls’ bullpen the night Zombro was hit. “It’s a miracle to see how hard he’s worked and put himself in that situation to come back and be exactly who he was before the injury. That’s a testament to how hard he’s worked and done everything he can to get back on the field.”
After the traumatic moment, Zombro grinded through two months of speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. He eventually got to continue parts of his rehabilitation at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, with his journey inspiring and motivating his Triple-A teammates.
The 2021 Bulls’ team motto? “Keep Going,” just as Zombro has done.
“I think it was every emotion. There were times of sadness. There were times of motivation,” Sanders said. “That Durham team last year felt like it was a big league team on its own. There were a lot of guys that are here [with the Rays]. There’s a lot of guys in other places that are playing in the big leagues.
“He’d come to the ballpark every day, and I think everybody would realize that, OK, there’s definitely more to this. Like, there’s more than outside of baseball. That definitely brought us closer as a group. … If you’re feeling down that day, you’ve got to realize like Zombro’s out here running and walking on the warning track — so it’s like, you can kind of get over it and do what you need to do.”