It was a routine move, on a routine play, during a routine practice.
It was just about a year ago that Bellarmine-Jefferson High junior baseball player Philip Diaz-McTague was taking part in a fielding drill at shortstop at Burbank’s Brace Canyon Park. As the athlete stepped to field the ball, he felt his left ankle snap.
Diaz-McTague said the pain was almost unbearable, as he dropped to the infield ground in a heap. He had to be carried off the field by a Guards assistant coach.
“It was a backhand play, a play I’ve done many times,” said Diaz-McTague of the incident that took place last March. “My ankle was already injured…and then out of nowhere my ankle kind of buckled on me and I heard it pop. I knew it was bad.”
After seeking medical help, Diaz-McTague said he was told that the bone in his ankle had completely separated. He was also informed that his injured leg would require a complicated surgery. Not only did the injury put an end to his season, but doctors told him he might not ever be able to resume rigorous physical activity.
“They grafted a bone from my shin and they put it in my ankle, he said. “They were thinking about putting a cadaver bone in there. That’s because there was only a small chance that a bone graph would work because the other bone was completely dead. They were hoping by putting a new bone next to the dead one, it would help to [regenerate] it.”
Undaunted by the diagnoses, Diaz-McTague vowed he would do whatever it took to rehabilitate his ankle and take the field among his Bell-Jeff teammates for his senior year.
What followed was months of intense and painful physical therapy, predicated on a will to finish his high school career playing the sport he loves.
“It was a really long, long, long healing process,” Diaz-McTague said. “I think I went to physical therapy for about nine months. The physical therapy was just the most painful thing. There was so much scar tissue, and basically having a new bone in my leg, it was excruciating.”
On March 4, Diaz-McTague completed his year-long journey back when he ran onto the same Brace Canyon Park for Bell-Jeff’s 2011 season-opening game against Kilpatrick. As if he was making up for lost time, Diaz-McTague went four for four and drove in two runs to spark a 13-3 win for the Guards.
Diaz-McTague’s remarkable comeback has not been lost on his Bell-Jeff teammates, who made him a captain this season.
“I know how hard it is to come back from an injury because I’ve had to do that,” Bell-Jeff sophomore catcher Mitch Kellogg said. “But he really wanted to come back and play his senior year. We all supported him and we’re proud that he was able to come back.”
Bell-Jeff Coach Hector Perez said what Diaz-McTague has been able to accomplish nothing short of astonishing. But knowing what a hard worker his player is, and how determined he was to be able to play baseball again, he is not surprised at Diaz-McTague’s final result.
“I just told him to write down a list of goals, and make one of them the goal of coming back and playing baseball,” Perez said. “Knowing Phil, and how determined he is, I really believed he was going to be able to achieve that goal.
“What he’s done has been a real inspiration, not only to the other guys on the team, but for the whole school. He’s definitely a motivator, and the kids look up to him. He proved what hard work, determination and goal-setting can accomplish.”
When the Guards lost the services of Diaz-McTague last season, they lost one of the team’s most productive players. As a freshman, he led Bell-Jeff with a .591 batting average. Along with scoring 40 runs, he had 39 hits, seven doubles and two triples. He also stole 23 bases in 24 attempts. His accolades earned him All-CIF Southern Section second-team and All-Santa Fe League first-team honors.
As a sophomore, Diaz-McTague — who was also an all-league football standout at Bell-Jeff, notching five interceptions during his sophomore season — hit.311 (19 for 61) with 25 runs scored and 13 RBI, earning him first-team all-league accolades once again.
With a brace helping to stabilize his ankle, Diaz-McTague is making the most of his senior season with the Bell-Jeff baseball team. Thursday, he was three for five with a three-run home run in a 12-6 win against host St. Anthony in the Santa Fe League opener.
He is batting over .500 this season.
Seeing this season as a rare second chance, Diaz-McTague does not take his opportunity lightly.
“I’m definitely going to make the most of it,” he said. “Thank God it was all able to come together.”