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Mariners Sam Carlson
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Sam Carlson, forgotten but not lost 2nd-rounder, is on a prospect path familiar for the Mariners

It wasn't long after the M's drafted Sam Carlson in 2017 that he was sidelined by a UCL tear. (Getty)

The highs and the lows of a professional baseball career can come at you fast, and sometimes right out of the gates.

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One minute you are a young prospect fresh out of the draft with considerable buzz surrounding you as you embark upon your path to the bigs, the next minute you are undergoing surgery that will set that path back by years. Your prospect shine dimmed as others pass you on top 10 lists. Setbacks coming back from surgery plunge you into dark days as the buzz around you begins to fade.

Your plans stalled, your goals uncertain.

For some, there is reward, or perhaps more specifically award – as in the Rookie of the Year Award – at the end of the climb back. For others, there is a journey.

Tommy John surgery after pitching just three professional innings was not the path 18-year-old Sam Carlson envisioned as he stood next to manager Scott Servais and watched the Mariners take batting practice from behind the cage at his hometown park Target Field just hours after being drafted in June 2017.

“It’s kind of like something that that you don’t ever think is going to happen to yourself,” he said a week before he wrapped up his Player Development League season with other Mariners prospects this fall. “When I was in high school I heard of some people getting Tommy John surgery, but (it’s) not until you are in college or pro ball that you see it happen pretty frequently. It’s one of those things that you think it’s never going to happen to you and when it happens to you, it’s like a slap in the face of reality.”

Reality for Carlson was 31 months between facing batters, and the path back from injury was not without bumps. Tommy John surgery followed a year of unsuccessful rehab, then in August 2019, 13 months after the surgery and just when he felt he was on the verge of being allowed to face hitters, he felt something once again in his elbow. It wasn’t another tear as he suspected, but the episode left him unsettled.

“I really didn’t know what to think,” he said last spring. “I was in a very dark place.”

Tests would reveal an impingement and not a tear. Good news for sure, but after two years of relentless rehab and recovery work, the Mariners’ player development group determined it was time for a break. Carlson didn’t throw again until that November, and when he picked up the ball for the first time, the then-20 year old felt weary. The disappointment of being so close in August only to have his goal once again pushed back further was still with him, but he fought through it, falling back on a player development philosophy.

“We talk about a big thing with the Mariners, just embracing our grass,” Carlson explained. “Just kind of being where your feet are. Sometimes that’s meant to be per se level to level, but being in rehab I embraced my grass too. There’s a lot of learning and a lot of unique perspective when you are faced with a situation where I tried to do everything on earth to pitch last year, and I’m not a single bit mad about it because I know I did everything in my power as a baseball player on and off the field to do that. You just have to own the situation. Your attitude, your effort and your preparation on a daily basis, those are things you can control.”

The grass beneath Carlson’s feet on Feb. 21 was that of a back field at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., as he made an emotional return to the mound to face hitters for the first time since being shut down after his second professional outing.

In front of a crowd of teammates, media and front office members – in a moment that director of player development Andy McKay believed was what had to be seen as the best moment of spring – Carlson threw 20 pitches he had waited almost three years to throw.

In a normal spring he would have been weeks away from finally throwing in a game. COVID-19 would push that timetable back another seven months. A setback for everyone in baseball, but with all he had been through, a setback Carlson was prepared to deal with.

“It was frustrating but at the same time I think that my experience that I had away from the game helped me prepare myself mentally for this,” he said. “There wasn’t a thing in the world I could do extra to pitch when I was hurt. That was kind of the same situation with COVID. No matter what anybody did, we weren’t allowed to be at the facility and we weren’t allowed to be playing baseball. I feel like my experience kind of like prepared me for it. You can’t really prepare for a pandemic, it’s obviously frustrating, but I feel I was able to make the most of it.”

Carlson spent the shutdown working out and playing catch with his brother Max, a North Carolina signee, at their home in Minnesota.

“It was super nice being able to have someone to throw with and stuff. We got kicked off a bunch of fields,” he said with a laugh, “but every time we got kicked off we went to a new one.”

While he didn’t get invited to participate in Mariners summer camp or report to the team’s alternate site during the season, he was one of the young pitchers who was sent to the Mariners’ “alternate, alternate site” in North Carolina to work with Mariners minor league pitching coach Sean McGrath (who coached 2019 first-round pick George Kirby at Elon) and other organizational coaches.

When the call came, Carlson was ready to get back on the path to competition.

“Going to North Carolina was huge,” he said. “That was the highlight of my summer, then to get invited to come here (player development camp in Arizona), that was the cherry on top. I’m just glad to be able to get some innings, get some work in, get to figure myself out as a pitcher again because I am a lot different from when I got drafted.”

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On the mound he is different. The velocity he displayed as a senior in high school has not quite returned but the Mariners believe that a solid season of pitching should return him to form. He’s developing a curveball to add to his arsenal – also different.

The biggest difference, however, cannot be measured by radar guns or Rapsodo machines.

While three-plus years into his professional career he lacks innings, he is light years ahead of most 21 year olds in valuable lessons that can only be learned in fighting through adversity.

“It might not be where I wished it would have been, as in like playing two seasons – obviously I would do anything in the world to have done that. The situation I found myself in didn’t allow me to, but I have learned about myself,” said Carlson, pointing out that it is a huge jump from high school to professional baseball. “I’ve matured both on and off the field, I think that I understand myself, my body, what I need to do. Some people never really make that adjustment.”

“He’s mature beyond his years,” said McKay. “This experience is going to reward him and it is rewarding him already in terms of how he has shifted his perspective on who he is as a person, what he wants his life to be about and his relationship with the game.”

At just 21, there is no pressure to rush to try and make up for lost time on the pitching side of things. He’s healthy, but who he is now as a pitcher remains to be seen.

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” Carlson said. “I’m still trying to feel out everything. A lot of times the game speeds up on me now. I’m working on that. I still have the adrenaline. We are playing on the back fields in Peoria and it’s still like I feel like I am playing in the World Series. It’s a learning process, but I am super happy with where I am at (and) I’m never satisfied. There’s no destination we are trying to reach, I just take it day by day and learn what I can do, what I can’t. It’s been fun.”

There’s an easiness to his determination, much like that we saw with another top prospect who saw others pass him by after injury. The similarities between the paths of Carlson and Kyle Lewis are not lost on McKay.

“The world did forget about Kyle Lewis, but nobody here really did,” he said. “Certainly Kyle didn’t forget about Kyle Lewis. What about the life change, perspective change and how that has played out for him? For Sam, it all falls apart because of the injury, the injury followed by the setback, followed by COVID. And at the same time, all those things are real, all these things happened, but you still feel like this is going to work and you feel that way because of the person. He’s still young, he’s impossible to bet against.”

If all goes well for Carlson, he should at long last pitch a professional season in 2021. If all doesn’t go well and there are bumps in his continued comeback, he will most likely handle them like the veteran with many more years under his belt.

“I know I can’t be knocked down because I’ve been in some really tough spots and I’ve doubted myself and I’ve found my way back,” he said. “I’ve gained a really unique perspective and it’s bled into my daily life and I feel like it’s just made me a better and happier person on a day-to-day basis. I feel like I have found the experiences and just a confidence in a sense that I feel like, I know what I have been through and I know that can’t defeat me.

“So it’s like, what can?”

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