Pain and Struggle, Stops on Navilhon's Road

Navilhon is in his first professional season with the Tigers

((C) Kevin Pataky Photography )

By Chris Jones / Connecticut Tigers | August 10, 2016 11:29 PM ET

18 months is a long period of time. Can you remember what you were doing 18 months ago? Take those 18 months and add that the game you've played your entire life has been taken from you and the future is uncertain as to when and if you will play that game at the same level again.

That was Joe Navilhon, the date is embedded in his mind, August 30, 2013. That day was when Navilhon had Tommy John surgery after his freshmen year in college at Cal State Fullerton. The 18 months, the hardest that the Brentwood, CA native had to endure in his young life.

Joe Navilhon has lived his entire life in California and just like many of those California kids, Navilhon grew up playing and loving the game of baseball.

"I'm extremely biased," said Navilhon. "California, to me, the best baseball environment you can have. Great weather, basically 10-12 months. You play year round with just a little bit of rain. I'm extremely blessed to be from California. My whole family is from there and it was a great place to grow up."

Navilhon grew up going to private Christian school until his freshmen year of high school when he changed to Freedom High School, a public school right by his house.

"I went to public school because my private school didn't have baseball," said Navilhon. "I knew that I wanted to play and other private schools were not financially right for my family. Freedom was literally across the street from my house. I could walk and get there in 30 seconds."

Attending Freedom was an adjustment for Navilhon but he settled in and joined up with the varsity baseball team his freshmen year.

"It was a complete culture shock but after a month of getting used to how it went I was settled in," said Navilhon. "I really enjoyed my time in high school, made a lot of friends, played varsity baseball for four years."

Navilhon's high school career started off with a bang, aiding his team to a championship.

"My freshman year of high school we won our championship for Northern California," said Navilhon. "I was the only freshmen. It was a really cool experience, getting to play at the Oakland Coliseum against a powerhouse private school, De La Salle. Played against them, beat them and got to dogpile in the Coliseum."

Navilhon's best statistical year in high school was his junior season at Freedom. Navilhon pitched 62.1 innings striking out 52 and logging a 1.80 ERA, he earned All-Bay Valley Athletic League Honors and was about to fulfill a dream with college on the horizon.

Navilhon always dreamt of playing for baseball powerhouse, Cal State Fullerton. So as he moved along through his high school career, Navilhon popped up on Fullerton's radar, they recruited him and Navilhon committed to Fullerton.

"That had been my dream school," said Navilhon. "I had always wanted to play baseball at Fullerton, that had been my dream forever and I was excited to get there."

Unfortunately, prior to Navilhon getting to Fullerton he would have his first stroke of adversity in his senior year of high school. Navilhon's elbow began to bother him in January of preseason, with the season a month away, Navilhon continued to pitch through it hoping for it to get better but it never did. With the draft coming up in June, Navilhon was excited to see where he may fall but the draft wasn't in the cards yet.

 "I didn't have any expectations as far as the draft, said Navilhon. "I knew I was most likely going to school because I wasn't going to be a first round pick. But I was excited at possibly being drafted my senior year and to not be able to play at all was rough and a really tough time."

"It was the beginning of about two and a half years of struggle and I had never gone through a hard time in my life. It wasn't fun to be 18 years old and not being able to play. Having people questioning if you're faking it and obviously I wasn't but it was just, my arm wasn't having it," said Navilhon.

Navilhon pitched his freshmen year at Fullerton on a stacked Fullerton team that made the 2013 Super Regionals and were a couple wins away from Omaha and the College World Series. Navilhon appeared in five games, only pitching in 4.2 innings for the Titans.

He went off to summer ball and pitched with the Victoria Harbourcats but as the season was coming to an end, Navilhon knew that his arm wasn't where it had always been. He got it checked out and found out the bad news, he was going to need Tommy John surgery.

The date of surgery was on August 30, 2013. It would start a long 18 month journey for Navilhon who enrolled in junior college and was a full time student while rehabbing his injury.

"My freshmen year of college at Cal State Fullerton we were extremely good and I loved playing there. It was a great group of guys and to leave that and go back home and move back in with my parents and basically went to two years of junior college by myself, said Navilhon."

"I had some friends but I was trying to get healthy again and it was just a lot on my own and that was hard. There were times when my elbow was hurting or I was going through rehab and my body wasn't feeling right and I thought, man, maybe this is not what I'm supposed to do."

Those thoughts were quickly pushed aside by Navilhon as he attacked rehab and the road to recovery with everything that he had. It was the toughest time of his life but the support system and his faith in God were influential and helped Navilhon through his struggles.

"There was a lot of perseverance, said Navilhon. "My family supported me when no one else did. I just tried to do my part and trust that the Lord had a bigger plan for me and that's what it came down to. It wasn't in my control and I surrendered my future and the things outside of my control to God and just tried to work as hard as I could. More than anything, my faith brought me through those times."

Navilhon began his rehab two weeks after surgery and rehabbed for eight months, with three sessions a week with his physical therapist Don Chew. Chew, a knowledgeable physical therapist, was a head trainer at Stanford as well as linked to the Olympic team.

The rest of the rehab consisted of Navilhon's throwing program, which Navilhon made sure that he did the right way so that he wouldn't experience any setbacks and have the best chance of getting fully healthy.

Navilhon still experienced those moments of doubt throughout the process, wondering if he would ever get back to his former self and be able to pursue his dream of a professional baseball career.

"I was coming to grips with it, that maybe it's not ever going to be the same, but I'm going to give this everything I had, said Navilhon. "I didn't want to look back five years from then or ten years from now and think maybe I could have done a little bit more."

"That is where my faith played a huge role, said Navilhon. "It wasn't in my control, I surrendered it to God and worked as hard as I could. I trusted that He had a plan for me and it's easy to say when things are going good but when you are tested and there are storms in your life, you find out what you are made off."

Navilhon pitched in his first game in January 2015, as Navilhon expected he had some rust to get rid of and slowly continued to work his way back and progressed underneath the guidance of Chabot College Head Coach Steve Friend and Pitching Coach Will Tavis.

"The coaches at Chabot were unbelievable," said Navilhon. "They gave me every opportunity that I needed, they let me play again when I had nowhere else to play. I struggled a little bit in the beginning of my first season after TJ at Chabot and then I really started to find rhythm in the middle and towards the end. My fastball was getting more life, I was getting command of my off speed."

Navilhon's focus was on getting fully healthy and giving everything he had to Chabot but with his junior college eligibility exhausted after the season, Navilhon needed to find a new home for what would be his redshirt junior season.

With how the recruiting process works at junior college, coaches checked out JUCO prospects in the fall prior to the season. Since Navilhon wasn't fully healthy yet, coaches were unable to see him pitch that fall.

However, the Chabot coaches throughout the spring continued to get Navilhon's name out there and let schools know that Navilhon was getting back to his normal self and was ready to jump back into the division one ranks.

At first only a few schools contacted Navilhon, most of them from the Northern California area but as the calendar got closer to the 2015 MLB Draft coaches realized players would be leaving to sign professional deals and Navilhon started being contacted by a bunch of division one coaches.

"That was finally good to see that a lot of hard work and perseverance began to pay off. When you feel wanted again by division one schools," said Navilhon. "Then once USC became a financial possibility it was a no brainer. I had heard about this place, I know how special it is and it was a place I wanted to be a part of."

Navilhon excelled in the fall season with the Trojans and knew that he would play a key role in a USC team attempting to get back to prominence. The season started and the Trojans quickly had their back of the bullpen lined up. Navilhon was part of a trio of Trojans to pitch the back end of the ballgames.

Suddenly, injuries and poor performances decimated the starting rotation for the Trojans and Navilhon was asked to fill the slot of the Friday night starter. In college baseball the "Friday Night Guy" is considered the ace of the staff, setting the table for the three-game series. Navilhon opened Pac-12 conference play against Cal.

"So that was my first start, my first nine appearances were out of the pen. I went about four innings, four and a third because it was first time going that many innings since junior year in high school," said Navilhon. I then pitched a Sunday against UC Santa Barbara, which was my first college win and then went nine starts in a row."

Navilhon finished the season going 5-5 with a 3.37 ERA, logging 82.2 innings and striking out 71 batters. Setting the table for the 2016 MLB Draft. Navilhon felt like he had achieved the success that would merit him being drafted. Still it was an anxious time for Navilhon and his family as they saw the names rattle off on the computer.

"I felt like I was going to be drafted, I just didn't know when," said Navilhon. "I wanted to be drafted in top 10 rounds but everyone does. It was stressful, thinking I was going to go and not being selected."

"Day three came around and the picks just rattled off and it was hectic. I was getting phone calls from different scouts and finally the Tigers picked me and it was cool. It was a moment I had worked my whole life for. My parents were with me, my girlfriend, my sister and brother-in-law. Throughout the whole draft we were together and to see my parents who had been there for me, supported me throughout everything. It was a day I'd never forget."

Navilhon was drafted in the 21st round by the Tigers and was quickly booking flights, packing up his place at USC and driving back to Northern California to catch a flight to get to Lakeland, FL to finalize his deal and throw a few bullpens before getting his team assignment.

"I threw three bullpens in Lakeland and wasn't sure my role and then they told me I was going to Connecticut and I was excited to get started," said Navilhon. "I wanted to show the organization what I was made of."

Navilhon has shown the organization that and more, pitching exceptionally well with Connecticut. To this mark in the season Navilhon is 1-0 with a 0.45 ERA in 11 appearances. The right-hander has thrown 20.0 innings, allowing 20 hits, 1 earned run, walked just 5 and struck out 22.

"Baseball is humbling, said Navilhon. "If you don't continue to work and continue to get better it will feel like everything you've done has been for nothing because the game will humble you quickly. I'm trying to be the same person I've always been. I'm very competitive and let that translate on the mound. I go out there and compete."

"I'm not the biggest, tallest or most intimidating presence but I believe in myself and believe that I belong here. I'm not intimidated by anybody, I don't care who is in the box, and it's a faceless opponent. I try to execute my pitches and if I execute I will have a good shot at success."

Navilhon has been through a lot over the course of the last three years and looks back at his struggle as a blessing in disguise. A time in which he was tested and was able to grow as a person and be better because of it. He knows future pain and struggle, whether on or off the field, are challenges he is prepared to face, especially with his support system.

"I know now that I have the ability to preserve, said Navilhon. My family has been has been an unbelievable support system, my girlfriend, sister, and brother-in-law. I'm very blessed with the structure that I have in my life."

"I feel like the athletic struggles that I've been through give me an advantage. I feel like that I've had to work and persevere through stuff that other guys haven't. And I need to use that pain and struggle to my advantage. Purely mentality wise I have the advantage over the guys that have had an easier path and haven't dealt with the struggles I have."

Those 18 months for Navilhon may have been some of the toughest moments of his life but those trials and tribulations will pay dividends as he moves throughout the rest of his life and career.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More