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Indians prospect Zach Plesac healthy and ready as ever following Tommy John surgery

Zach Plesac speaks with Let’s Go Tribe about recovering from Tommy John surgery, the stories behind his tattoos and dunk contests with Will Benson in this exclusive interview.

Mathew Carper

The Cleveland Indians selected Zach Plesac in the 12th round of the 2016 MLB draft, but he wasn’t able pitch that year.

The reason? He underwent Tommy John surgery in late April, about 45 days before the draft.

The Indians knew they were taking a risk on the Ball State standout, but that risk has paid off immensely.

Plesac debuted for Low-A Mahoning Valley in 2017, giving up just four runs in 26.0 innings over eight appearances and earning a promotion to Single-A Lake County.

For the 2018 season, the Indians again aggressively promoted Plesac to High-A Lynchburg and he even has had a chance to start three times for Double-A Akron. Plesac continues to impress as he has allowed one run or fewer in seven of his 12 starts this season, including an unbelievable 74-pitch complete game two-hit shutout.

The talented right-hander spoke with Let’s Go Tribe about recovering from Tommy John surgery, the stories behind his tattoos and dunk contests with Will Benson in this exclusive interview.

Brian Hemminger (Let’s Go Tribe): I spoke with your former teammate Will Benson last year and he said you have some of the biggest hops in the Indians organization. Is that true?

Zach Plesac: (laughs) I would say I’m a close second to Benson. Me and him, we have fun. We enjoy the game of basketball and just love the game. That’s how we got to know each other. We started playing together and we’ve been throwing up some crazy dunks ever since we met each other. It’s been fun doing that.

Brian Hemminger: Who do you think would win a dunk contest between you two?

Zach Plesac: Ooohhh man, that’s tough. I would say we both put up some dunks that would get some good votes. It would be a good match-up. I can’t give you a winner because I don’t want to say the wrong one. You know what? I’m gonna say I’d beat Benson in a dunk contest. Let’s go! (laughs)

Brian Hemminger: I’ve noticed you have some pretty unique tattoos. There’s one on your left shoulder, one around the collar, another on your wrist. Do they have any special meaning?

Zach Plesac: Yeah, I got a diamond with wings on my right wrist. That one, it’s called “Throwing Gems” for pitching gems. It’s something I have for baseball. I have a quote by Aristotle, basically saying just live every day like it’s your last and not try to live life to get things in return. Just basically live life to the fullest and taking whatever comes your way. I got that after surgery on my right elbow.

I have three owls on my left shoulder and a compass and where I’m from engraved on there. The three owls are for the three boys in my family: me, my twin brother and my younger brother who’s in high school. The compass is there because my twin brother’s in Alaska right now, my younger brother’s in Indiana and I’m traveling playing ball so the three owls resemble us going our ways but always knowing where home is. I also have three roses on my chest for the three boys with a crown in the middle.

I have a rosary for my religion and I also have a chariot with wings on it. That’s for my uncle Dan, who’s a former big leaguer. He owned a farm in my hometown, he actually raced harness race horses and he had a three quarter mile track at the farm where we went. To make that track, they had to dig up some dirt to form the track and what it did was it made room for a big pond in the middle so it was a place where my dad and my brothers would go and camp. It was where I caught my first fish, shot my first goose, first time I ever camped outdoors with a fire. It was a pretty cool little spot that we had so I had that chariot tattooed on my chest. Uncle Dan had to sell that property when he moved to New Jersey to work for MLB Network and it’s kinda one of those things that I’ll never forget and I got the tattoo to remind me of all the good times I had there.

Brian Hemminger: From speaking with your teammates and seeing casual posts on social media, it seems like the video game Fortnite is a big deal. Is that something you do in your spare time as well?

Zach Plesac: No, I don’t play Fortnite. I’m not really into video games. I’m more the outdoors type. I like to find a nice restaurant on the river, make phone calls and talk to my family, maybe read a book. I’m not really into video games but I support their grind because I know it’s a test for some of those guys.

Brian Hemminger: If it’s not video games, what team bonding things do you do?

Zach Plesac: Just going out to eat with the guys is something I really enjoy doing, spending quality time with those guys. I love just hanging out in the locker room and just talking at someone’s locker. Bus rides can be fun when they’re not too long, but my favorite thing is to go out and get some food with teammates, hanging out and watching a sport event is one of my favorite things to do with some of the guys.

Brian Hemminger: How do you survive the monster road trips on the bus?

Zach Plesac: Sometimes I don’t really know. If I get my own seat on the bus, then I think I’ll survive. If I have to share a seat, it gets tough. You have to find the right groove where you can maybe rest your head and fall asleep. I try to listen to music and I watch Netflix on my phone sometimes. When I watch Netflix on my phone, it makes me tired and I end up falling asleep for about two hours so I just keep doing that, repeating the process.

Brian Hemminger: Do you have any guilty pleasures with your music or Netflix?

Zach Plesac: I love music. I have a really wide variety of music. Me and Benson, we find music and we send it to each other whether it’s a song or an album, then we talk about it, share what we think. The new Kanye, or the old Kanya, Pusha T, Drake, those two had a conflict, stuff like that.

My guilty pleasure right now is Safe on Netflix. I also really like Shooter. Shooter’s my favorite show. There’s two seasons so far and I think the third season comes out June 22nd so I’m super excited for that to come out. It’s getting pretty intense.

Brian Hemminger: You had a unique experience with your uncle being a successful Major League pitcher and it gave you a different perspective on the sport growing up. Has that familiarity with Major League Baseball been an advantage for you compared to some of the players who may get shell-shocked with the transition to professional ball?

Zach Plesac: It’s hard to explain. That’s what I grew up into. The familiarity, it’s just a part of my life. I grew up knowing that and I grew up planning my life to do that. Dan Plesac is my godfather. He actually never had a son, so he loves talking to me about baseball and I’m like a son to him and he’s like an extra dad for me. He’s always been able to help me.

I remember being young and meeting Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens and I didn’t know how great of athletes they were. I didn’t understand the significant of it. It was just a part of my life. My uncle would talk about Jim Thome being his best friend, and to some fans, they’d go crazy hearing that, or seeing his name pop up on the phone, but to be at the ballgames, walking on the field, seeing that atmosphere and I lived my life as a part of that culture.

That’s really helped me become the athlete I am and it got me to the place I am today with baseball and I how I feel and how I approach the game. I respect the game a lot because it’s such a part of my life.

Brian Hemminger: The Indians are known for how well the organization works with players recovering from Tommy John surgery. Did they do anything during your rehab process that really impressed or surprised you?

Zach Plesac: What was special to me was the way they were so involved with my recovery process. I didn’t feel like just a number, I felt personally connected with the whole staff starting with minor league medical coordinator Andrew Pipkin and all the guys who were there. Ken Knutson, the rehab pitching coordinator and Ruben Niebla helped me a lot.

They were so helpful and had the patience to help me understand that what I was going through was going to take time because sometimes I can be impatient. They did a really good job of helping me understand the whole process. It’s not about rushing back into it and trying to do too much. I had to learn to manage my time, learn to push myself but not push myself too much to the point I’d be having a setback.

Ryan Faer, the strength guy really helped me out too. They managed to get me through that whole rehab process without having any setbacks. That’s something I take a lot of pride in, not having anything go wrong in my rehab process. I just took every rep, every second that was on the itinerary for that day and attacked it as much as I could have.

Brian Hemminger: Recovery from something as serious as Tommy John surgery can be mental just as much as physical. How long was it until you felt fully confident throwing a baseball at full strength again?

Zach Plesac: I would say probably a year until my arm felt good and healthy and strong for me. It is so mental. You have to get through the aches. You have to trust that you just threw two sets of 120 feet of throwing the day before and your arm’s sore because you hadn’t thrown in a long time. You’re thinking in your head, “Is my arm sore because something’s wrong again?” but no, it was sore because you’re building the strength back up.

I really had to trust in the whole process. I didn’t know if I was hurt or I was sore. I was just really dialed in and trusted what the Indians literally told me to do and it turned out they know exactly what they’re doing. I gave all my trust to them and it helped me out. It got me to this point where I am now and I feel as healthy as I’ve ever felt.

Brian Hemminger: After only being allowed to throw about three innings at a time last season when they still had the training wheels on you, how has it felt to be given so much more freedom this season to really go for it?

Zach Plesac: (laughs) That’s funny you asked about this. I was trying to fight everyone last season to pitch more. I felt good last year. I wanted one more inning every time, even just one more batter. I’m really competitive in that way and I felt good and wanted to keep pitching.

That’s where it goes back to me learning to be patient and understanding why they didn’t want me to throw so many innings at that point. I think now, having the reins freer on me, it just shows how far I’ve come to be able to throw that many pitches in a game, that many innings. I threw my first complete game this year and I hadn’t done that since college. That alone goes way far for me to be able to say I’ve thrown nine innings when last year I was capped at three. It means a lot to me to be able to go out there and do that.

I hate to come out of games because I’m so competitive. It shows that the hard work I’ve put in has allowed me to get to this point and go farther into games and stay healthy enough that they trust me to let me go that far.

Brian Hemminger: Speaking of that complete game you threw, it was a 74 pitch nine inning shutout, otherwise known as a Maddux. Jason Lukehart, the originator of the Maddux, said he can’t find a complete game thrown in the minor leagues or MLB that had fewer than 74 pitches thrown, not even by Greg Maddux himself. Were you just locked in that day, were the opposing hitters swinging at everything? What was going on?

Zach Plesac: I felt really good that day. I remember before the game feeling good and having a good conversation with my catcher Logan Ice. First off, to even have Greg Maddux’s name used in any situation that has my name is incredible. I hope to be even half as good as he was in the Major Leagues one day.

Just the fact that that game happened the way it did, I talked to my uncle Dan (Plesac) about it, we talk about almost every game, and he was like, “You know what? That could be one of the best or one of the worst things that could ever happen to you because that just doesn’t happen. You have to understand that. It may never happen again.”

He kind of humbled me there and made me understand that I’ve got to go out there and pitch as well as I can every game. Sometimes it can happen that way or sometimes it’ll flip where I last six innings and give up six runs and that’s just the way baseball is.

I think it was my day that day throwing a complete game two-hitter against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. I was just locked in like am every game, working to attack the zone and get ahead of hitters. Sometimes you’ve got to pitch to contact when they’re really aggressive in the box and that’s what I did. My defense obviously made incredible plays behind me and it’s really to their credit that I got that win the way I did. It looks good for me as the pitcher to do that, but in the long run, my team scored the runs for me and played the defense because I only struck out three guys. They really won the game for me.

It was fun. That really meant so much to me to come back and throw nine innings and have success like that. That was something special.

Brian Hemminger: You had a chance to move up to Double-A and get some starts with Akron recently. That’s supposed to be the most difficult jump between levels in minor league baseball, but you pitched amazing with two scoreless starts. Could you tell the difference, or was it like any other game for you?

Zach Plesac: That’s actually what helped me. I just approached it like it was any other game. I did my routines, humbled myself and tried not to let the environment get to me.

There’s more fans there, the hitters are a little older and more experienced. They’re definitely well aware of the strike zone and it was kind of up to me to take advantage of my strengths and not try to do too much. I had good catchers there catching for me with (Daniel) Salters and (Sicnarf) Loopstok and they were calling a great game.

I felt happy to be there and I don’t want to sit here and say I’m ready for that yet because it’s not my call, but whenever the front office decides to send me anywhere, I’m going to keep attacking the game with my competitive edge. My ability hopefully will take over.

It was definitely fun playing for coach (Tony) Mansolina and Rigo (Beltran), they won a championship here in Lynchburg last year and it was a fun experience getting to play for them, having that atmosphere, it was really cool.

Brian Hemminger: A lot of pitchers have a unique personality on the day they’re pitching. Some guys don’t even want people to look at them, others are really loose and joking around. What are you like?

Zach Plesac: I try to stay super loose. The night before a game, I always eat pizza. The next day until I pitch, I don’t really eat a lot at all. It’s not like I’m trying to starve myself, I just don’t get hungry. I might have a bowl of fruit and that’s really it, but then after the game I crush food like it’s no other.

During the day, I’ll listen to music. I might watch videos of something funny. However I’m feeling that day, that’s what I’ll watch. Just last game, I was watching clips of Borat because me and my friends were talking about funny lines from movies. It’s one of those things that keeps me loose and feeling good.

About an hour and a half before the game, I really start locking it in, doing the mental preparation, imagining myself facing hitters. About an hour before the game I get a stretch with the trainer, then 30 minutes before the game I’m out on the field getting my body loose running around outside and 20 minutes before gametime is when I start playing catch. I do that for about 7-8 minutes and 10 minutes before the game, I’m out on the mound. I spend about five minutes on the mound then I’m in the dugout the last couple minutes to catch my breath, say my prayers, drink some liquid and head out for the national anthem and we’re ready to rock.

Brian Hemminger: Did you set any goals for this season and how do you feel you’re doing thus far in regards to accomplishing them?

Zach Plesac: Yeah, I did set some goals, some things I was working on. Being fully healthy, I wanted to have some velo come back to me. They say the second year from surgery is when the velo comes back so I’ve been doing that. I’m sitting 3-6, 3-5 mid-90s. Establishing my command still is something I really want to do.

My goal was to get up to Akron and play for Akron but I’m looking forward to potentially in September, I want to be on that call-up list. None of that is up to me though. I shouldn’t set goals about Akron, Columbus or Cleveland because I don’t get to decide that. I need to focus on getting done what I can get done and everything else will take care of itself.

My main goal is to be strong and be healthy for my first full season back and to last the full season feeling healthy and strong and set my routines so I know how to last a full season in pro ball. So far, I think I’m doing an incredible job. I’ve felt healthy all season and my velocity has definitely come back. I think I’m on the right track.

You can follow Zach on Twitter @ZPlesac.