With twin brother's support, Vols pitcher makes emotional return

February 28th, 2023

PHOENIX – Zach Joyce’s journey back to baseball, and specifically, the pitching mound, has nothing to do with mph or ERA, but everything to do with the camaraderie and the sense of belonging that a ballclub can provide.

The junior right-handed pitcher at the University of Tennessee debuted with the program in 2023, more than two years after he originally expected to when he stepped on campus in Knoxville. His story had all the makings of a feel-good moment -- the hometown boy making good with the local program he grew up rooting for. Instead, his circuitous route may wind up delivering an even more important message.

Joyce first transferred to the Volunteers alongside his twin brother, Ben, with the intention of parlaying the success the pair had at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn., to the big-time stage of the SEC. But Zach, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2020, stepped away from the team before he donned the threads. Diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he chose to prioritize his mental health over baseball and step away, putting himself ahead of the game he had played since he was a little boy.

His absence from baseball continued into 2022, when Zach enrolled as a student at Tennessee with a major in supply chain management. He sought out and embraced therapy. He wasn’t in the dugout, but the Knoxville native was still a part of the Volunteer family.

“The biggest thing for me is being able to open up about mental health,” Joyce said. “I learned that I have a big support staff around me – coaches here, teammates, even when I wasn’t playing.”

Stepping back on the mound wasn’t a high priority, but the pull of pitching never dissipated. Craving the 1-on-1 competition that comes from a batter digging in against a hurler, the 22-year-old knew he had reached an inflection point when he returned to watching from the sidelines.

“Being away for so long, when I got back and watched – I came to watch Ben play. Just seeing him out there kind of got my blood flowing a bit,” Zach said.

Ben’s baseball odyssey reached a fever pitch last season after he unleashed a 105.5 mph heater in relief for Tennessee, setting an NCAA record and thrusting his high-octane arm into the spotlight. He was a flummoxing Draft prospect due to his relatively light usage, but undoubtedly appealing due to the velocity bottled up in his right arm. Ultimately, the Angels selected him in the third round last July. MLB Pipeline deems him the No. 12 prospect in the organization.

“I'm excited for him,” Ben said of his younger brother (by four minutes) returning to the mound. “We've had a long road to get here and he's had an even crazier road to get to the spot where he is now.

“It's kind of bittersweet because we played together every year since we were in preschool or whenever we started playing T-ball. It's our first time not being on the same team. So it's a little bittersweet, but it'll be cool to see him from the other side.”

Zach stood on the field after Tennessee’s close defeat to Grand Canyon University in the MLB Desert Invitational during the season’s opening weekend, soaking in the adrenaline a packed crowd produces – even when it's the opponent’s. 

“I never thought I was going to play again,” Zach said. “So I’m just so grateful for the opportunity, but I don’t want to take it as just grateful for the opportunity. I want to help our team as much as I can.”

That help would come soon. While Zach's results are no longer the priority, he’ll certainly take getting outs – particularly strikeouts. The first five batters he faced for Tennessee went down via the K, against UC San Diego on Feb. 19 and Alabama A&M on Feb. 22. His heater -- thrown 13 times -- averaged 95 mph and got six swings-and-misses, while his slider sat in the mid-80s.

“Unfortunately, right now, I don’t throw 105,” Zach laughed. “It's just been pretty crazy to be able to be experiencing something like this after not even playing for the past two years.”

While the Volunteers narrowly dropped their first two contests of the season in Arizona, they showed off some fashion sense and outright fun in the process, a reminder of the joy the game can bring.

The journey for Zach – with or without a glove on – is just beginning. He’s away from his biological brother on a baseball field for the first time, but he has found a safe haven within the Volunteers’ clubhouse.

“That whole family thing we have here, I missed that a lot,” Zach said.

“I just hope [people] take away that you're never alone,” Ben said of his brother’s message touching those beyond the game. “No matter what you're going through, you can get through it. … [Zach has] been open about his anxiety and depression, and I think it's really awesome that he took it upon himself to make it into a good thing for other people.

“I just hope that other people see his example and are able to reach out if they need help and just see the positive impact that he made on other people.”