Stoneburner Battling Back

The results haven't been there since his return

TRENTON, NJ - The word "injury" has fallen in the same sentence as "Graham Stoneburner" far too often in recent years. First there was the fractured vertebra that forced the right-handed pitcher to miss his senior high school season. A year later, a torn ACL cost him his freshman year at Clemson. Last season, he missed three months with a pinched neck nerve.

And this year, as a member of the Trenton Thunder, Stoneburner did not pitch the majority of the season's first half after straining his groin on two separate occasions.

"My first start of the year," Stoneburner said, "I had a lot of tightness in my groin. I had a line drive come back at me, shifted out of the way pretty quickly, and then as I kept pitching, it just tightened up. So, we made the call to take me out of the game. I missed two weeks, came back.

"Then in my third start back from hurting my groin initially, I had a strain of my groin again, so I took three weeks off."

But now, Stoneburner is healthy and back with the Thunder after rehabbing in the Gulf Coast League.

The 6-foot, 205-pounder struggled in his return on July 13. He surrendered five runs (three earned) and six hits in 1/3 innings.

He was also knocked around in one of his most recent outings on Friday, when he gave up six runs and five hits in one inning.

"On Friday his pitches were maybe a little bit flat and his location was off," Thunder manager Tony Franklin said. "He just wasn't sharp.

"Stoney is the type of pitcher, when he is down on the bottom of the strike zone, he's got good sink, good run and he's going to produce ground balls. He wasn't doing that and consequently he was hit."

Stoneburner performed much better in his second appearance on July 16, giving up just one run with three strikeouts over three innings.

Despite his inconsistency, Franklin is not overly concerned.

He thinks Stoneburner's early struggles are more a reflection of his pitcher being rusty than anything else.

"He's a guy who lost a significant amount of time to injury," Franklin said. "We were hoping he'd be able to jump right back in there and get going. I'm sure he would've too. But it doesn't always happen that way.

"I'm not worried about it. This is what this level is all about, let him go out there and maybe have some failures. That gives him something to think about, work on and correct. And hopefully, he'll be able to straighten those things out when things go wrong again."

A 14th round pick in the 2009 draft, Stoneburner understands that being injured has stunted his development as a pitcher.

As the 24-year-old puts it himself, "You can't make it to the major leagues if you're not healthy."

This realization explains why Stoneburner is still rehabbing his groin even though he is pain free.

Prior to any physical activity, Stoneburner heats his groin to make sure it is loose.

He also has been extremely diligent in the weight room. Several times a week, Stoneburner strengthens his groin muscles by doing band resistance exercises as well as different types of squats and lunges.

He tops all of that off with groin-strengthening agility work that incorporates change-of-direction movements.

"It's just a process you have to go through to get back into playing shape," said Stoneburner, who throws a low-90s fastball, mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup. "My number one concern is my health.

"I'm going to do everything I can to treat my body properly and just give myself the best chance to be healthy. And then after being healthy, it's just having success pitching and executing your pitches."

When Stoneburner has been healthy, he's shown why he is considered one of the better pitching prospects for the Yankees.

In 2010, he went a combined 9-8 with a 2.41 ERA in 26 starts between high-A Tampa and low-A Charleston.

He spent most of 2011 with the Thunder, his first year in Double-A. Stoneburner was inconsistent, going 1-5 with a 4.17 ERA in 11 starts.

His struggles last season probably had something to do with his neck injury, which, Stoneburner said, affected his throwing motion.

"Here's the big thing," Thunder pitching coach Tommy Phelps said, "he needs some innings. He needs to get out, pitch in those games under the lights and get his feet wet.

"…His slider has improved over the past few years. His delivery is solid and he commands the ball pretty well. The injuries he's had have been freak things, and the big thing for him is just to get out and compete."

Stoneburner is currently pitching out of the Thunder bullpen, despite the fact that he was a starter at the beginning of the season.

His demotion of sorts to the bullpen has everything to do with his missed time. While he was out, Trenton's starters were stellar. There is simply no room for Stoneburner in the rotation.

But, that doesn't mean he won't get a shot to start again in the future.

"It all depends what happens with the guys we have," Franklin said. "Right now, the starters are pretty locked in, but if someone gets promoted or heaven forbid gets injured, I'm sure he could step in and pick up the slack. I think that he pitches very well and effectively as a starter."

And Stoneburner is not complaining one bit about being in the 'pen.

He's just happy to be healthy.

"I know I can have success as a starter," Stoneburner said. "Right now I'm in the bullpen, and that's where the Yankees want me right now. I'm just focusing on pitching in the bullpen and when my name is called, doing my best to shut down the other team.

"I think I'm on the right path now. I've done a lot of rehab and a lot of strengthening and my groin feels good. So I think I'm headed in the right direction."

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