After a breakout baseball season in which he tied the Georgia Bulldogs record for saves, this was supposed to be the year that Tyler Maloof firmly established himself as one of college baseball's top closer prospects.
But the Norcross graduate has spent the first month on the sidelines because of a lat strain and it will likely be well into April before he takes the mound in a game.
"Mentally, it's been hard on him," Georgia coach David Perno said. "It's taken a lot longer then we had expected. He's throwing, but at only about 75 percent. It will probably be another month."
Maloof, a fourth-year junior, strained the muscle under his pitching arm during fall workouts and by his standards it didn't appear to be that serious. After all, he'd already endured elbow surgery and a shoulder injury while in high school.
But the lat strain flared up again when spring practice started and the soreness lingered.
"It's been frustrating," Maloof said. "All I can do is work hard to rehab it and try to get out there as soon as I can."
Georgia has had to shift Blake Dieterich from the rotation to the bullpen to compensate for Maloof's absence and the Bulldogs, who started the season ranked No. 8, fell to No. 18 after being swept by UCLA last weekend in Athens.
Maloof's 18 saves tied for the third most in college baseball last year and he was at his best late in the season. The right-hander notched two key saves in the SEC Tournament and then pitched well as Georgia reached the final game of the NCAA Corvallis Regional.
In a season of despair for the Bulldogs after outfielder Johnathan Taylor was partially paralyzed in an outfield collision, the emergence of Maloof and the team's late success were bright spots.
Prior to last year, Maloof had pitched in just three games and had a 16.88 ERA. He was red-shirted in 2010 in part because of a bout with swine flu.
But Maloof quickly responded to his new role as closer, converting each of his first 16 save opportunities.
"When the game is on the line, he wants the ball," Perno said. "He was really big for us last season."
"I guess it was just a perfect fit for me," Maloof said. "I definitely like it. It's a role I always wanted."
"He's calm, he's cool, he's confident," Perno said.
Because of past injuries, Maloof had pitched little before he arrived at Georgia as a pitcher-outfielder. He was limited to just playing the outfield as a junior at Norcross and missed his senior baseball season after the shoulder injury suffered while playing football for his father, Keith.
"But when I got to Georgia, I don't think it took long for them to decide I wasn't a hitter," Maloof said.
He made just three appearances as a freshman, though, and was redshirted the next year. Then came the breakout season last year, when Maloof thrived in pressure-packed situations.
Cleveland made Maloof a 34th-round draft pick, but the 21-year-old didn't seriously consider signing and returned to Athens after spending part of the summer in the Cape Cod League.
"I had a lot of incentive to come back," he said. "I knew we'd have a good team this season and I wanted to be part of it."
So far, though, he hasn't been. It was also a lat injury that bothered Josh Fields, who set the saves record that Maloof tied, his final season with the Bulldogs.
"Hopefully there will be a lot of the season left when I come back," Maloof said.
"We need him," Perno said. "But we have to be cautious and make sure that he is ready before we put him out there."