Top-seeded Vols go into NCAA Tourney with fireball reliever

Tommy John surgery to fix a ligament inside the elbow has become almost a routine procedure for pitchers.

Tennessee right-hander Ben Joyce fared so well that he did much more than just get back on the mound.

His fastball got faster.

Joyce regularly throws pitches around 103-104 mph this season, and he threw what’s believed to be the fastest pitch in college baseball history May 1 in a win over Auburn. Only Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees has been clocked throwing harder fastballs.

“The rehab process and just really trying to get as strong as I could I think really kind of to that extra couple miles per hour after the surgery,” Joyce said. “So, I think I’ve probably gained 5 miles per hour since Tommy John surgery.”

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Joyce is a reliever for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed after the Vols became the Southeastern Conference Tournament regular season and tournament champs for the first time since 1995. Tennessee (53-7) opens the tournament Friday night, hosting Alabama State.

Joyce’s velocity has fans checking the scoreboard for the speed of each pitch. Everywhere Joyce goes, children constantly ask for photos and autographs.

He’s also surprised his own coaches.

Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson calls Joyce’s fastball “uncharted territory.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and we get excited watching him,” Anderson said. “And it’s fun. There’s a buzz when he comes in the game and in the energy in the stadium because of what he’s done as far as you know the velocity.”

Pitching at Tennessee had been the Knoxville native’s dream since he started attending Volunteers baseball camps as a child. He had a growth spurt of 8 inches before his senior year in high school where he hit 100 mph only once.

Joyce didn’t pitch as a freshman at Walters State Community College in Morristown. As a sophomore, he started five games going 3-1 with a 4.79 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. He transferred to Tennessee and needed Tommy John surgery in October 2020.

That made the next few months challenging as Joyce worked to get his range of motion back. It helped that his identical twin brother, Zach, had the same surgery before him. Joyce credits his recovery with helping him be both stronger physically and mentally. And yes, he’s faster than his brother.

“It’s a little bragging rights there,” Joyce said.

During rehabilitation, Anderson worked to help Joyce develop a slider as a better option to a very loopy curveball. Anderson also researched different grips helping Joyce tweak his changeup.

With Joyce coming off surgery, Tennessee has used the right-hander out of the bullpen, except for one start. He grabbed attention early this season by hitting triple digits regularly, and he has thrown 379 pitches measured more than 100 mph with 111 of those topping 103 mph.

Joyce hit 104 mph with seven pitches in three relief appearances at the SEC tournament.

The game he clocked 105.5 mph, Joyce actually threw three pitches over 105 mph against Auburn before topping out, according to Tennessee’s YakkerTech tracking system. Baseball America counted only three pitches of 103 or faster in Major League Baseball over the past two seasons combined.

Listening to fans’ reactions after each pitch gives Joyce an idea of how hard he’s throwing. On that day, teammate Jared Dickey broke the news to him and asked Joyce why not try and break the record.

“That gave me a little laugh,” said Joyce, who focuses on throwing strikes and the batter he’s facing rather than setting a new mark on the radar gun.

Joyce graduated in May with a degree in finance and should be selected during the MLB draft in July. Anderson sees Joyce as someone who needs to work more innings and can be a starter in the majors.

“Every time he goes out there, there’s something new,” Anderson said. “He gets better at some aspect of it. And so I think if you put him in a starter situation, you kind of monitor, the amount of innings and this and that. I think it would help expedite the process. And I think it would just make him better down the line.”

For now Joyce can help Tennessee’s quest for a second straight College World Series berth after being forced to watch from the sideline a year ago as the Vols went to Omaha for the first time since 2005 without him.

“I’m going to try to cherish every moment that I get on the mound, especially in the big games that I was kind of watching from TV or on the sideline,” Joyce said. “So it’s going to be exciting to be a part of this year and see where we end up.”

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