Johnny Ray didn't let anyone see it, but he had butterflies when he stepped on the mound.
His relief appearance for the Danville Dans in the Prospect League season-opener against the Hannibal Hoots on May 30 at Clemens Field was the first time Ray had thrown in a live game in nearly a year. It was the first time his right arm felt healthy in nearly two years.
His right arm looked healthy, too. His fastball was explosive and popping the catcher's mitt. He only threw an inning, but it marked a significant milestone in the recovery process for the Quincy Notre Dame graduate.
To feel like himself again was a refreshing experience.
"It felt really good," said Ray after the debut. "When I was running in from the bullpen, I was ready to go."
It had been a long time since he felt that way.
Ray can't quite pinpoint when he hurt his elbow, but he remembers it hurting after a play during his junior season on the QND boys basketball team.
Ray went up to block a shot and, in the process, slapped his hands on the backboard.
"I kind of hyper-extended my elbow," Ray said. "I didn't think much of it. I had an MRI, and it didn't show a tear."
He went into the baseball season still feeling a nagging pain. It was enough to keep him from pitching at all during his junior year for the Raiders.
He got a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow, but Ray said it made it feel worse.
"It was just inflamed," he said. "I just tried rehabbing it."
The elbow flared up again before leaving with the St. Louis Pirates, a travel team, for a tournament the following fall in Jupiter, Fla. Ray didn't make the trip, and he shut down baseball for the rest of the season. He played basketball for the Raiders in the winter and felt fine.
He then pitched two innings in an early spring game against Central. He knew something was wrong the next day.
"I could only bend it to about right here," said Ray, who held out his arm to about a 90-degree angle. "Something was actually wrong, and I felt liked I needed surgery."
Ray, however, still wanted to play baseball. While he didn't pitch again for the rest of his senior season, he did switch between playing center field and designated hitter for the Raiders.
Because he couldn't throw, he either had to use his left arm to throw a ball back into the infield or make an underhand toss to a teammate and let them fire it back.
"It was kind of humiliating," he said. "There was nothing I could do, but I wanted to play, so I had to push through it."
An MRI after the season confirmed Ray had a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, and he needed Tommy John surgery. He underwent surgery June 27, 2017, and the rehab process began.
"Words can't really describe the emotions that were going through my mind," Ray said. "There were countless hours where I'd think about it and just think, ‘Why is this happening to me?' I used it as motivation.
"I could have gone one of two ways. I could have given up baseball, or I could have just worked harder and prevailed."
The road back
All during this time, Ray had future plans made.
He originally had given a commitment to play baseball at Louisiana State University, but he later elected to stay in-state and play at Illinois State. His surgery, however, forced him to take a redshirt in freshman season and gradually work back to full health.
He also had more time on his hands besides schoolwork. He used some of that time to read a book his father gave him titled "The Arm."
"My dad said this was going to be the toughest thing I was going to go through," Ray said. "But I just wanted to put my work in. I knew if I wanted to play again, this is what I had to do. I had no choice."
He rehabbed at First Choice Therapy in Quincy as well as in Bloomington/Normal. That helped him keep his spirits high.
It all led back to him finally toeing the rubber in the Prospect League.
A new school
Ray is still on a slow road to getting back to full strength. He usually isn't throwing more than an inning in a relief appearance. His velocity is better than it's ever been, and he hopes to be used more often later in the summer.
"He's throwing strikes and hitting 90 to 92 (mph)," Danville manager Eric Coleman said. "He's still getting his arm back, but I really think he can help us down the stretch.
"We just kind of build up his innings, and hopefully by the end of the summer, he can be a two- or three-inning guy."
Ray made his first (and most recent) appearance in Quincy on July 8, allowing a home run but earning the save in a 7-5 victory over the Gems. He has made 10 appearances for the Dans with a 2.02 earned run average in 12 innings. He has 14 strikeouts and six walks. He has one victory and two saves.
Ray expects to be just like his old self before long, but he hopes to be even better when he heads to John A. Logan Community College in Carterville in the fall. He chose to transfer after Illinois State fired Bo Durkac as its baseball coach in May following a 22-30 campaign.
"Every time I toe the rubber, I feel like I'm learning more about myself," Ray said. "Ever since the surgery, it's given me a lot more time to think. What I want to do on the mound, how I want to execute pitches ... I've really learned things about myself since coming to Danville."