While arm surgeries often end a pitcher's career, elbow surgery might have saved Trabuco Hills pitcher Brianna Burkman's.
In October, Burkman felt numbness in her right pinky and ring finger. After consulting with Dr. Benjamin Ruben, Burkman underwent elbow surgery Dec. 17 to have an ulna nerve transposition.
Four months later, Burkman is in the midst of rehabilitation and has a scary revelation for her opponents.
The junior right-hander believes she's pitching better since her surgery.
That's better than last year, when as a sophomore, Burkman posted an 0.53 earned-run average and struck out 166 batters in only 119 innings, earning Pacific Coast League most valuable player honors.
That's better than the first round of the Southern Section playoffs during her freshman year. For 10 innings, Burkman no-hit El Toro, the eventual 3-A champion, but lost, 1-0, in 14 innings.
Burkman thinks her ball is breaking sharper than ever now.
"It's funny, since I'm kind of afraid to hurt my elbow again, I think I'm concentrating harder now," Burkman said. "I'm making sure I do every little thing properly . . . my windup, my delivery.
"My elbow feels great. There's no problem with it," she said. "It's making sure everything else gets back into shape."
Burkman is ready to pitch short stints, and worked two innings in a March 7 scrimmage with Foothill, the county's top-ranked team in the preseason poll.
"I thought they might knock the ball around pretty good since I hadn't faced a batter for six months," Burkman said. "But it went pretty well."
Trabuco Hills Coach Mike Flanegin also liked what he saw at the scrimmage.
"We played them even," Flanegin said. "It's nice to know you can stay with one of the top teams in CIF."
"When I first heard of Brianna's surgery, I was just concerned with her health," he said. "I'm glad she had it properly taken care of and we'll bring her along slowly through the year."
Ruben, who performed the same procedure on Cal State Fullerton pitcher Tiffany Boyd, operated on Burkman. But Burkman downplays the importance of the surgery.
"It was outpatient stuff," Burkman said. "All they did essentially was reroute the nerve, then I was home the same day.
"It's an injury more common with golfers and motorcycle riders," she said. "But I think it happened to me because I've pitched so much in my life. . . . I started pitching when I was 9 or 10."
For the past two seasons, Burkman's battery mate has been all-county catcher Christy Lunceford. Lunceford carries the biggest bat for Mustangs, hitting .427 while driving in 30 runs in 27 games last season.
But as far as Burkman is concerned, Lunceford's greatest asset has been her defensive skills and pitch selection.
"We think the same way," Burkman said. "I feel confident whenever Christy's behind the plate.
"During the summer, my coach called the pitches from the dugout and I felt kinda weird about shaking him off," she said. "With Christy, that's never a problem."
"She knows how to set people up and she pitches intelligently," Flanegin said. "She's a tremendous competitor."