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After rare heart condition, South River's Scott Mitchell 'glad to be here'

BaseballHeart DiseaseOriole Park at Camden Yards

After more than 100 pitches, the fastball had lost some steam and the breaking ball that baffled batters earlier in the game didn't have the same snap.

South River senior pitcher Scott Mitchell, his dirty jersey showing the effects of an already demanding day, took a deep breath as pitching coach Gary Gubbings approached the mound for a second visit in the seventh inning.

"Can you get this last guy out?" Gubbings asked as he looked the No. 5 Seahawks' ace in the eyes.

Mitchell's response was quick and direct: "I got him."

With two runners on against No. 10 Severna Park in an Anne Arundel County matchup, Mitchell threw a high fastball that Falcons second baseman Danny Fulton swung through for the third strike to end the Seahawks' 2-1 win in early April.

Mitchell doesn't handle last-inning jams the way he did in the past. For that matter, he doesn't handle anything in life the same way.

Less than two years ago, shortly after finishing his sophomore year, Mitchell learned he had been living with a severe heart defect since birth. Instead of going to a tryout at Camden Yards and starting another summer filled with baseball, he was on an operating table at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"It just came out of the blue, so we were all pretty shocked," Mitchell said. "It was like, 'Wow, at any point, I could have died from a heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.' Now, I'm just glad to be here."

Mitchell suffered from coarctation of the aorta, a congenital heart disease that is the narrowing of the body's largest artery. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the rest of the body — and Mitchell's was completely blocked.

"It was extraordinarily rare," said Dr. Michael Slack, the cardiologist who performed two procedures to open Mitchell's aorta. "You might wonder how someone can be alive with that, but the fact is he had it since he was a little baby, so his body adapted by making collaterals with other arteries of the body that bypassed the blocked aorta."

Mitchell, then 16, first underwent a stent angioplasty of the aorta on July 5, 2011, opening it up 14 to 15 millimeters. A second procedure the following summer extended the same stent to a full adult diameter. The heart of the South River (15-5) baseball team is now fixed and flourishing.

Unable to play baseball for three months following his first surgery, Mitchell returned to the field in time for his junior year. He only missed about four weeks after the second procedure — and now he's starring for the Seahawks, who are scheduled to face No. 3 North County in the Anne Arundel County championship Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Joe Cannon Stadium.

On the mound, Mitchell has a 5-0 record, 0.44 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 48 innings. He's hitting .406 with 15 RBIs and 23 runs scored.

"He's the glue that holds us together," junior shortstop Kyle Canavan said about Mitchell. "His passion for baseball is phenomenal and how he came back after his heart condition is very inspirational to all of us. To deal with something like that, be as good as he was and come back even better is very impressive."

'Hoping I was going to be all right'

Mitchell's love for baseball started when he was 3 years old. His mother, Karen, would come home from work and Scott would greet her at the front door.

"Pitch to me," he would say, and the two would go out in the backyard for a half-hour before she went back inside to make dinner.

"We'd be out there pretty much every day it wasn't raining or below freezing," Karen Mitchell said.

So, after winning 13 games and batting over .400 on varsity through his first two years in high school, the news of his ailing heart stunned Mitchell. Aside from the lingering cough that prompted the visit to the doctor, he felt fine.

After the doctor listened to his heart and looked at the chest X-ray, he ordered Mitchell to immediately stop playing baseball and see a cardiologist.

"I just wanted to get in there and get whatever I needed done, get it over with and get back to playing baseball," Mitchell said. "I was scared, too, just hoping I was going to be all right."

Mitchell spent five days in the hospital after the first surgery, and the three months that followed without baseball were difficult, but he has never been one to back down from challenges.

The 6-foot-1 right-hander lost 20 pounds — mostly muscle — during his recovery, dropping to 165 pounds (he now weighs around 175). He isn't allowed to engage in intense sports conditioning with a high static component, so he has had to focus more on repetitions with lighter weights instead of lifting heavier weights.

After sitting through summer and the early portion of fall ball — Mitchell said watching from the bench gave him a new and more positive approach to the game — he was ready to return.

During an afternoon check-up on Oct. 4, 2011, Mitchell was cleared to play. He rushed home to get his uniform and played under the lights at Joe Cannon Stadium that night.

"We were all just so happy," Karen Mitchell said. "Scott's identity has always been as a baseball player. That's how he sees himself — a ballplayer — and we were all so thankful he could play again. And they won [the game]."

'An ultimate team player'

South River baseball coach Ken Dunn knew Mitchell would perform at the best of his ability when he returned for his junior season. Dunn just didn't know how much that would be. Although he wasn't back to regular playing shape, Mitchell still hit .344 with 16 RBIs and 13 runs scored. He also had four wins for the Seahawks as a pitcher.

"He was amazing," Dunn said. "He didn't back off from anything, and he hasn't backed off from anything to this day. I think all those months he had to sit down has renewed his commitment to baseball with a more positive approach. He's an ultimate team player, and it's a blessing to have one of the best players in the county buying in totally to what we're doing."

Mitchell, who accepted a partial scholarship to pitch at Radford University, can impact a game with his pitching, power at the plate and ability to play multiple positions.

More importantly, he wants to be the guy to make the big play. A 1-0 win over Chesapeake-Anne Arundel early in the season provided an ideal example.

Mitchell didn't pitch in the game, but he had a double in the first inning to drive in the game's only run. And then, playing first base in the sixth inning, he caught a Chesapeake runner going too far past second base and picked him off to end the Cougars' threat.

"Those were two big moments that he didn't let get by him," Chesapeake coach Ken King said. "I think Scott brings a presence that maybe at this point in time is unmatched in our county. Everybody knows who he is because he's been on the varsity scene since he was a freshman, and he's done some great things in baseball."

'I'm going to give it my all'

The Seahawks have seven seniors in their lineup and a camaraderie that Mitchell said is second to none in all his days playing baseball. It presents an ideal opportunity for South River to win a state championship for the first time in school history.

Mitchell, who sets a confident tone with his lively chatter on game days, has learned to shake things off quicker and is able to think things through more clearly to execute.

"It's my last year in high school, so I'm going to give it my all. I don't want to look back and say I didn't work hard enough or try hard enough," he said.

Before Gubbings visited the mound in the seventh inning against Severna Park, he and Dunn agreed they would let Mitchell decide whether he wanted the last batter.

At that time, before the question was posed, both coaches knew the answer.

"Here's a kid who has gone through what he's gone through with his heart, and he's worked hard to deserve to be in that position," Gubbings said. "And we were fine with whatever happened. If he gets the kid, good for us. If he doesn't, it's not the end of the world and Scott would be going back to the mound the next time being our go-to guy."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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