Wade Townsend tossed five shutout innings in his return from Tommy John surgery Thursday to lead the Columbus Catfish to a 6-1 victory over the Kannapolis Intimidators in the season opener for both teams.
Townsend (1-0), the eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft, allowed two hits and a walk while fanning six en route to his first professional victory. The 6-foot-4 right-hander went 0-4 in 12 games (10 starts) during his debut season with Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League.
It was Townsend's first appearance since blowing out his right arm in an Arizona Fall League start in 2005. He admitted he had some butterflies.
"When you're away that long, you don't realize how much you miss it," he said. "Getting back out there was a big step mentally. I just wanted to play again and have fun doing it. It was just so much fun to be around the team again."
Townsend said he was happy with his performance overall.
"I thought I threw well, but I'm always a nitpicker," he said. "I think there are a lot of things I could improve on."
The 24-year-old received all the support he needed in the first inning as the Catfish scored four times, highlighted by Quinn Stewart's three-run homer. Matthew Fields added a two-run blast in the sixth.
Stewart went 2-for-4 with a stolen base and two runs scored, while Cesar Suarez also collected two hits for Columbus.
Catfish reliever Brian Baker tossed a perfect sixth before Ryan Reid allowed one run on four hits over three innings for the save.
Despite his stellar debut, Townsend's journey back to the mound has been unconventional and filled with potholes.
Townsend attended Rice University and, along with Mets prospect Philip Humber and fellow Devil Rays prospect Jeff Niemann, formed one of the best college rotations. The trio led Rice to the 2003 College World series before going among the first eight picks in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
Townsend never made it on the field in 2004 with Humber and Niemann. The Orioles selected him with the eighth overall selection, but he returned to college after contract negotiations broke down. Prior to his debut season with Hudson Valley in June 2005, Townsend had not pitched since 2004 at Rice.
The righty made his debut in the New York-Penn League on June 24, 2005. Four months later, he was facing Tommy John surgery.
Rehab was difficult, but it was worth it just for Thursday's opener, Townsend said.
"It was really tough. People don't understand what rehab his until you do it every day, he said. "Even then, it just repeats itself and you do it every day, hoping that it pays off in the end. And today, it started to pay off."
"I was frustrated the whole time, but you can feel [the right arm] getting stronger, [so] you keep going," he explained. "You start treating the sessions as if they were game day."
The 24-year-old talked to both Niemann and Humber when he needed a lift. Humber had undergone the same surgical procedure five months earlier, so Townsend leaned on him for advice.
"Because he was five months ahead of me in rehab, I would go to him with questions and especially concerns," he said. "[Humber] would calm me down when I would freak out about possible setbacks, explaining that is exactly what he went through."
While Humber and Niemann are on the brink of cracking Major League rotations, Townsend does not harbor any jealously toward his former college teammates.
"I am rooting for both Philip and Jeff to make it and I believe I am on par with them, and coaches and scouts would agree," he said. "I just have to go prove myself to everyone again. [Humber and Niemann] have been in the limelight the last couple of years and people have forgotten about me, but that is OK. I just have to get back and show them I can still pitch."
Chip Haunss is a contributor to MLB.com.