Change up in mindset

Tennessee baseball pitcher Zach Joyce details his return to the mound
Big Orange Kickoff
Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 6:07 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Tennessee pitcher Zach Joyce returned to the diamond this year after stepping away from the game due to mental health issues.

Zach spent 16 months away from the game, and didn’t even touch a baseball in that time. It wasn’t until the Vols started their 2022 campaign was a switch in Zach’s mindset.

“Yeah, honestly, a big part was my brother Ben’s play, and I didn’t even watch a single baseball game,” said Zach. “I guess it was 2020 and 2021, didn’t watch a single game. And then I came back to watch him play and the first day, I think I’ve said it before, I was sitting in the stands and I had to like get up and walk around. Like I said goose bumps, kind of missed the whole environment. Miss being with the teammates miss playing the game.”

During that time, Zach closed himself off to a lot of people, even his twin brother Ben, who took the sport by storm with his fast pitch.

Finding joy in the game again reconnected the brothers.

“He was really encouraging to, he would talk to Coach [Frank] Anderson, talk to Coach [Tony Vitello], and, tell them how I was throwing and stuff. So he really did help me a lot,” said Zach.

Zach stepped away from the game in 2020 following Tommy John surgery. As he dealt with his recovery, his mental health plummeted. As he battled with depression and anxiety, he decided to publicly announce that he’d been suffering.

“Yeah, I mean, the biggest thing for me and I learned kind of through the whole process is that, like, in my personal experience not opening up was really the thing that kind of made it worse,” said Zach. “And I looked up to Tennessee baseball players, you know when I was a little kid, I thought maybe I had a chance to help kids that were in the same position that I’m in.”

Even today, Zach has to work on not letting those same harmful thoughts filter back into his mind.

“The biggest part for me was just opening up and being able to lean on my teammates, you know, my family, my brother, my parents, and that’s something I’ll be using because it is definitely a struggle. There’s time for this kind of highs and lows like roller coasters, my dad says. So it’s just kind of just being able to deal with the highs and the lows,” said Zach.

In October of last year, Zach took to Twitter and detailed that he’d been struggling with his mental health. In his message, there’s a phrase that reads, ‘Progress always starts with a single step,’ and it’s a phrase that centers Zach even to this day.

“Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the whole journey coming back, especially my parents kind of they were the first one that kind of told me that why don’t you start throwing again, so to start with that step, and then next step was talking to coaches and kind of just leading from there so I mean, I wouldn’t be here playing against Tennessee. If I had just taken that first step,” said Zach.

His first step was going to his dad and asking if he’d play a game of catch with him, again.

“I didn’t really have the courage honestly to ask him to play catch with me at the beginning because I just didn’t think it was gonna be very good,” said Zach. “So he really did help me a lot. And then like I said, you want to Farragut with Coach Wagner was kind of really just helped me build up that confidence, you know, first out with my dad and then throw with the ketchup fair game, and then you know, get into third gear in the summer and stuff like that. So it really just kind of like a little progressive, like I said one step at a time working through those different stages of the comeback process.”

He also learned what he was feeling wasn’t abnormal. In fact, he’d be someone young athletes could look up to.

Zach added, “There was a kid actually that just had the kind of same injury I had in high school, which was like a growth plate fracture. It was kind of talking to him about it. He said that he really did mess with his head a lot too. You’re not the only person going through it. That’s really what helped me a lot and beginning too.”

And just as the Tennessee Vols began training for the 2023 season, Zach was right there with them.

Zach described the emotions he felt taking the mound for the first time again, “Yeah, I mean, I remember the first inter-squad through and I think that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life. And it was just an inner squat here. Just because I mean, it’d been like four years and obviously my dream my whole life had been to play Tennessee, basically since I lived here. So you know, just go down to even listen to inner squatters. Like I just kind of realized how much I really did care about it. And like how much I hadn’t missed the game. Just that competitive aspect of being out there and throwing against another batter, even if it was our own team.”

Completing the comeback and truly becoming a Tennessee Vol, he said he’s more intentional this go around.

“Just being able to terrace being out in the mountain again, whether it be an inter-squad game SEC game, you know, I never thought I was gonna game again. so it kind of gives you just like that. just that much more of a meaning to you so just being able to cherish those moments and, you know, being a Tennessee Volunteer is pretty cool,” said Zach.

Through 36 games, he’s tossed nine complete innings, recording seven hits, three runs, two walks, and 15 strikeouts.