Tough as nails: Baylor baseball’s RHP Will Rigney overcomes lowest of lows

Junior right-handed pitcher Will Rigney (15) hurls a pitch during a conference contest against Kansas State University on March 19, at Baylor Ballpark. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

Three season ending injuries were the start to junior right-handed pitcher Will Rigney’s collegiate career, but he’s battled back to get on the mound for Baylor baseball.

“There just were definitely some moments where I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play, much less throw again,” Will said. “I need to just be thankful that I’m even out there.”

In 2019, a 6-foot-6-inch tall, 200-pound pitcher stepped foot on Baylor’s campus for the first time as student-athlete. Will grew up in Waco and has been a Baylor fan since he was a kid.

His dad, Charlie Rigney, was an all-conference catcher at Baylor and Will grew up loving the Bears. Will could see himself playing in the green and gold when he graduated high school. Now in his adulthood, he’s living out his dream, but the road thus far has been a tough one.

Will entered his senior season at Midway High School as a potential fifth-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, according to many professional scouts. Unfortunately, that season was the beginning of his injury woes. Will suffered a partially torn UCL in his throwing elbow and also had a tendon flexor strain, which shut him down for the rest of the year.

The starter avoided surgery and instead received two platelet-rich plasma injections. The purpose of the shots was to accelerate the healing of the muscles and tissue so Will could be back on the bump the following spring. The once top-five round prospect fell down draft boards after the injury and was selected in the 38th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants.

Instead of beginning his pro career, Will decided to stay close to home and kick-start his tenure at Baylor.

The Woodway native only made one appearance in his freshman season (2020), where he picked up the win in 3.0 scoreless innings of work. He went into the fall of his freshman year feeling good, but then felt discomfort in his right shoulder. Will soon found out the impingement was in his rotator cuff and labrum, and it took another full season to recover.

Soon after Will started rehabbing during the 2020 season, COVID-19 hit campus. The baseball season came to a quick close and the Bears turned focus to 2021.

Will started his second-year freshman season with two strong performances out of the bullpen. But yet again, the injury bug found Will. When he got the news, he discovered the injury was Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. TOS occurs when compression of nerves, arteries and veins in the lower neck and upper chest, near the shoulder, cause discomfort. The unique pain sprints through the arm, shoulder and neck at the same time and can be extremely hard to recover from.

The Baylor pitcher was once again shut down with a season-ending injury and forced to focus on rehab and cheer on his team from the dugout.

“He’s a big energy guy,” fifth-year senior right-handed pitcher Blake Helton said. “He really helps all of our mindsets. Kind of like a bulldog, he’s great to have behind your back.”

2022 was supposed to finally be the year that Will threw a full season. He appeared in nine games for the Bears, eight of them as a starter, and struck out 42 batters while holding and ERA at 4.54. He looked up to the part, but in a start at the University of Texas on April 22, 2022, he sustained the third season-ending injury of his career.

Will had a scope on his rotator cuff and labrum, which required surgery. The injury was the hardest one to recover from, as Will said he struggled with mobility in his throwing arm and had to regain strength.

“It took two or three months to even get my arm above my head,” Will said. “I just remember for the first month or two when I could barely lift my arm, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.’ But it all worked out.”

With a brand new coaching staff under him, Will hopes to find his fire again in 2023. He’s already ahead of his initial return timeline and has to continue to work his arm after every start.

“It’s just going to take some time and you’ll feel really good one week [and] then feel bad the next,” Will said. “It’s just an up and down process and I’d like to keep increasing my workload.”

Will added the rehab road hasn’t been easy, both mentally and physically. As a homegrown talent, the junior said he always has family and friends in the stands cheering him on. While having an amazing support system has been amazing for Will, he said he doesn’t want to let them down.

“I used to play baseball [because] I love it,” Will said. “I still love it, but it’s almost to the point now where I don’t want to hang it up because so many people have invested so much time, energy and effort into getting me back on the field. I kind of feel like if I didn’t go out and keep playing, I’d let them down. That’s my big reason why I play, to make everybody’s time and effort worth it.”

Now after a start, Will has to rest his arm for multiple days. The day after an appearance, he receives a dry needle treatment from the teams’ athletic trainer, Josh Barnhill. The following day, Will rehabs by running four to five miles. Additionally, he does several mobility exercises to decrease inflammation and pain.

“I used to be blessed with an arm that didn’t hurt much, and obviously after the surgeries, that changed a lot,” Will said. “When I went and threw against Kansas State, I threw only the three innings and it took a toll on me. For the next two days, I didn’t even pick up a baseball. That’s kind of what I do.”

In the aftermath of several months of recovery, the fruits of the labor are starting to take shape. On March 20, Will was named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Week, and one of the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s 13 National Players of the Week. He threw 5.0 perfect frames over two different outing and struck out a whopping 11 of the 15 batters he faced.

“It made me realize how far I’ve come,” Will said. “A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this. Two weeks later, I’m the Big 12 Pitcher of the Week. It’s kind of funny how it works.”

Will has made his way onto the mound four times this season and holds a team-best 2.16 ERA, while racking up 13 strikeouts and only walking two batters. Each time he has touched the rubber, his jersey rocks a stain on the right shoulder from Red Hot, a more intense icky hot cream, to keep his arm warm.

The heat has not only impacted Will, but also the team. The green and gold found its stride and went 3-1 during the week Will won his first collegiate honor.

“That dude is the definition of a thermostat, not a thermometer,” junior second baseman Cole Posey said. “It’s something you can see whenever he gets out there. He changes the whole demeanor. Will won’t tell anybody this but he’s grinding right now. He’s doing stuff that only Will could do because he’s so determined to get back and help this team. He’s a true competitor and we’re thankful to have him on the team.”

Will and the Bears (9-16, 2-4 Big 12) are currently in the early part of battling for a spot in the Big 12 Tournament. Will said he’s garnerning MLB attention but that he’s focused on the moments he has at Baylor.

“Everybody’s goal is to play at the next level, and I’d love to play at the next level, but I couldn’t be happier at Baylor,” Will said. “I have two more years left, I’d love to play six years of college at Baylor. I’m really happy where I am, and I’m grateful for that.”