SEATTLE – When you’ve endured 32 months of waiting and watching from the sidelines and training room – with persistent elbow pain, an injection of your own platelet-rich plasma, hours of rehab, a setback, Tommy John surgery and almost a year of rehab and recovery – all to throw 20 pitches off a mound in live batting practice during spring training, well, you gain the mental discipline to wait out the delays caused by a global pandemic.
Sam Carlson has come to understand patience in his brief professional baseball career.
Since the Mariners selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft out of Burnsville, Minnesota, thinking they got a steal in a high school pitcher with first-round talent, Carlson, now 21, has pitched in two official minor league games – a one-inning start on July 13, 2017, and a two-inning start five days later. After experiencing elbow pain, the Mariners shut him down for the season. It was the start of an odyssey that’s now reached three missed seasons due to the cancellation of the minor league season.
“I think my past with dealing with Tommy John kind of prepared me mentally for something like this more than a lot of people,” Carlson said in a video conference Thursday. “I’ve been in a situation before where baseball hasn’t been able to be played, and it’s been out of my physical control. And that’s pretty much what happened to everyone this year. We weren’t able to play any games, and there wasn’t anything that we could do about it. With Tommy John and rehab process, I was already able to have an idea of what I want to do with my life and how I could get better without being in games.”
Knowing his right elbow was finally healthy made things easier. Instead of rehabbing and recovering, Carlson was training and preparing for pitching in real minor league games – whenever they might come.
“Over these last four months, I’ve been throwing, and it’s been like the most exciting, fun, exhilarating last four months ever,” he said. “And it just fires me up for next season. It just gets me super excited. It makes me want to work super hard. It’s obviously tiresome, it’s a pandemic, man, there’s nothing we can do about it. I wish I could. I wish I could have done something about being injured the past couple years. And I confidently can say that I did everything I could to be in the position I am.”
His throwing restarted with a trip to North Carolina with nine other young pitchers in the organization who weren’t invited to be part of the 60-player pool in Seattle. They worked out with minor league pitching coach Sean McGrath near Elon University, where he’d previously been the pitching coach. It was the organization’s own two-month pitching camp to keep them developing.
Carlson, now the Mariners’ No. 15 prospect, is one of 40 participating in the Arizona Instructional League for Seattle. And while it isn’t the same as a full minor league season or regulation games, it’s better than anything he’s had since those two starts in 2017.
“It’s been really good,” he said. ” … It’s kind of like learning who I am as a pitcher again, building that confidence back and getting those in-game reps where the intensity and your adrenaline are at levels that you can’t get to unless you’re actually in those games. That’s been the biggest part. Just get my feet under me on the mound, competing against guys in other jerseys and showing myself that I’m healthy and I can do whatever I put my mind to again.”
There is a feel to pitching that is lost with that much time away from the mound. The release point, rhythm and mechanics all need to sync. And with off-speed pitches, it’s more vital. He admits he’s still working to find it.
“It’s come a long way,” he said. “At first, it was just like a sheer lack of confidence in my health. Then, once that went away, it was being able to compete and be a savage on the mound, and just go after guys. That has taken time. … And a lot of it is more mental approaches than physical approaches.”
Working on strict pitch limits in the controlled environment of the instructional league, Carlson has learned not to get caught up in the results of his outings. He’s added a curveball to go with his fastball, slider and change-up. Most important, he’s had no elbow issues.
During this long process, he’s been taking college classes while recovering from injuries and continuing them through the pandemic shutdown.
“It’s just bettering myself and my education, just trying to become a more well-rounded person,” he said.
When the instructional league and high-performance camp ends, Carlson will return to Minnesota and train with his younger brother, Max, a hard-throwing pitcher who signed to play for the University of North Carolina.
“I got a lot of things that I’ve learned the last four months that I’m going to go into this offseason and just take to get ready for the next season,” he said. “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling confident. It will be a good offseason.”
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