By: Shane Petagna (The University of Tampa)
Despite a blowout loss to the Bourne Braves on Sunday, Zach Joyce (Tennessee) made his first appearance of the summer for the Kettleers in relief and tossed 2 2/3 innings of shutout ball, striking out three.
“The biggest thing for me is this is baseball at its purest form,” said Joyce. “And I hadn’t had that in a long time.”
It had been a difficult process for Joyce as the Knoxville, Tennessee native went three seasons without pitching in a game before making 13 appearances with the Volunteers in 2023.
Joyce’s story begins on September 17, 2000, when he was born four minutes after his twin brother Ben. Naturally, both boys had always been intertwined together, including on the baseball diamond.
Ben and Zach went through massive growth spurts in their junior year at Farragut High School in Knoxville, committed to play baseball at Walters State Community College after no major offers came their way, and eventually found their way back home and joined Tennessee in the fall of 2019.
“[Zach’s] character is eerily close to his brother and they're both guys you wish you could clone and coach,” said Tennessee baseball head coach Tony Vitello. “They're clones of each other, but you wish year in and year out you could clone them because of the way they go about their business.”
But shortly after their commitment to the Volunteers, that’s where the roads started to separate for the identical twins.
While warming up for a Walters State game in the fall of 2019, Zach tore his ulnar collateral ligament and would need Tommy John surgery. The injury prevented him from pitching in what would end up as a pandemic-shortened season in 2020.
Joyce’s recovery was stressful and full of setbacks. His anxiety became worse even as he began to work out with the team.
“It’s never that I didn’t want to play,” Joyce said to Jake Nichols last June. “I wanted to play the whole time. But I was having really bad anxiety attacks almost every day.”
Joyce met with Vitello and the rest of the coaching staff, and the decision to step away from baseball was made in the best interest of his mental health.
“They just supported me as a person, not even just as a baseball player,” said Joyce. “They just wanted me to feel better mentally. That's the biggest testament to them that I can have.”
While Joyce wasn’t playing anymore, he was still very close to Tennessee baseball. He watched Ben fully recover from his own Tommy John surgery and become one of the most popular players in college baseball in 2022, with a fastball that reached speeds of 105 mph.
Zach had spent 2021 and 2022 taking classes at the university, interned with a defense contractor in Knoxville, and worked out on his own. But by the end of the 2022 season, when the Volunteers won over 50 games and were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Zach realized he still had a competitive fire for baseball.
After some encouragement from his mother Joni, Joyce decided it wasn’t too late to make a comeback.
Vitello and the rest of the Volunteers coaching staff were very supportive of Joyce when he stopped playing baseball and welcomed him back with open arms back to the team ahead of the 2023 season.
“At the beginning, I kind of just kept it to myself, I didn't really open up to anyone,” said Joyce. ”But actually my girlfriend Claire [McKittrick], she's kind of dealt with some really bad anxiety in her life as well, so just kind of being able to open up to them about it. My mom, dad, my girlfriend Claire, my friends; just opening up and leaning on people around me was when it really started getting better.”
Joyce appeared in 13 games as a reliever for Tennessee and struck out 17 batters over 10 1/3 innings pitched, good for a 1.065 WHIP. His performance allowed him to continue his comeback in the Cape Cod Baseball League with Cotuit.
“I think coming back from the adversity he's had in his life shows you how strong [Zach] is too,” said Vitello.
The support system Joyce was surrounded with allowed him to come out of his darkest times and still achieve the dream both twins had of playing for their hometown Volunteers. Without the help of family, friends, and the entire Tennessee baseball team, Joyce may have never found his way back home to the pitcher’s mound.
Now in Cotuit, family is still important to him as he’s making his own path.
“It's already nice sitting in the bullpen and getting to know all the pitchers from different schools you’ve never met,” said Joyce. “So it's kind of just building that family up again in a different team but it'll definitely get closer as we go and it's been a pretty fun experience so far.”