UF left-handed pitcher Hunter Barco announced on social media on Tuesday night that he will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow.
The third-year sophomore from Jacksonville was having a huge season prior to his injury. He finishes the season with a 5-2 record and a 2.50 ERA. He struck out 69 batters in 50 1/3 innings.
“Over the last few weeks, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my years as a Florida Gator,” Barco said in his social media message. “There is not just one play or one pitch that means more to me than another.
“What rises above my play on the field is my love for Gator Nation. Every time I stepped onto that mound, the energy from my brothers and the fans ran through my veins. Every pitch I’ve thrown has been for you guys.”
Barco was named the SEC Pitcher of the Week and the NCBWA Dick Howser Trophy National Pitcher of the Week after he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of the season opener against Liberty. He finished that game with just one hit allowed and a then-career high 11 strikeouts in six shutout innings.
He broke his career high again the following week by striking out 12 Georgia State batters in six innings of one-run ball.
Perhaps his best start of the year came in the SEC home opener against LSU. He gave up just two hits and struck out eight batters in seven scoreless innings to pick up the win.
Barco seemed a bit off in his final three starts. He gave up three runs in five innings against both Georgia and Arkansas, and the Gators lost both games.
He surrendered two runs on four hits in two innings of work against Vanderbilt before leaving the mound for the final time this season, as it turned out.
His final pitch was a chopper down the first-base line. He fielded it and threw the runner out for the final out of the inning.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the play until Barco pointed to his left elbow as he entered the dugout. During his in-game television interview, coach Kevin O’Sullivan said that he was removed from the game because his conditioning was suffering as a result of a recent illness.
However, on the following Wednesday, reports surfaced that Barco would be shut down indefinitely while dealing with elbow discomfort. Ryan Slater has taken his spot in the rotation in the two series since then.
Tommy John surgery used to be something of a death sentence for promising young pitchers, but it’s now common to see pitchers make a complete recovery from the surgery and sometimes even throw harder than they did before.
Still, a return to form is not guaranteed. His UF teammates, Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt, both underwent the surgery prior to the 2021 season. They returned to action a few weeks into the 2022 season, but they both have lost about five miles per hour on their fastballs and have gotten roughed up at times.
Another teammate, Garrett Milchin, underwent the surgery twice and isn’t much of a factor as a sixth-year senior.
The timing of Barco’s injury leaves him with a difficult decision to make. The MLB Draft is only a couple of months away, so his injury will almost certainly hurt his draft stock and the amount of money that teams will be willing to pay him for a signing bonus. He had been considered a potential first-round pick.
However, if he were to return to UF, he would likely miss most or all of the 2023 season while rehabbing from the surgery, with no guarantee that he’ll ever get his draft stock back to where it was pre-injury.
Barco acknowledged the unfortunate timing of his injury in his social media message and said goodbye to Gator Nation in the event that he has completed his collegiate career.
“I would like to thank my teammates, fans, family, coaches and all of Gator Nation for these last three years of incredible memories,” he said. “To the fans, thank you for your unwavering support every step of the way. The fan base for the Florida Gators is second to none, and all of the kind gestures have not gone unnoticed.
“If I have thrown my last pitch in the orange and blue, I will forever cherish every moment and memory made in a Gator uniform.”
With three weeks left in the regular season, the Gators need to pile up some wins to make the NCAA Tournament. Typically, 13 regular-season SEC wins is enough to get you in a regional if you have a strong resume, which the Gators do. If that’s the case again this year, that means that they’ll have to go 5-4 or better in their final three conference series, starting this weekend at Mississippi State.
And they’ll have to do so with one of the best pitchers in the country watching from afar.