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Mariners prospect Sam Carlson
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Mariners notebook: Sam Carlson takes a big step — pitching to teammates

It's been a hard road for prospect Sam Carlson since the Mariners drafted him in 2017. (Getty)

One of the highlights of early Mariners spring training is getting to see players you have only heard about from afar. Last year we got our first looks at Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic. This spring I’ve found myself scrambling to make sure I see Logan Gilbert’s throwing session on the major league side and George Kirby’s bullpen with the minor leaguers.

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I’m still chasing down last year’s No. 2 pick Brandon Williamson, who is in minor league minicamp. On Friday we got our first look at 18-year-old Noelvi Marte, who is the 10th-ranked international prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Good first looks by all, but perhaps the most gratifying to see occurred at the very end of the day when a group of young pitchers coming off injuries faced hitters on Field 3.

When the pitchers warmed up in the bullpen there was a good sized group of players and coaches who watched them from behind the fence showing their support. In that group was Sam Carlson. Drafted with the Mariners’ No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft at the age of 18 out of high school in Minnesota, the tall right-hander threw all of three innings as a professional before being sidelined with a torn UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery. Gone were the 2018 and 2019 seasons as the recovery and rehab process was slow and not without setbacks. On Friday, however, Carlson took the biggest step forward, pitching to teammates.

“I was nervous, man,” he said. “It was weird. I kind of was like, ‘What’s going on right now?’ But it was cool. This is what I love doing. It’s awesome and I’m just excited to get to work because I have been dying to do this since I was 18 and had to put it on hold but now I am back at it.”

A 2 1/2-year delay to the dream he thought he was well on his way to accomplishing. It has been a rough road back for Carlson, who admitted that there were times when he literally hated baseball and wondered if he would ever throw again.

“Nothing went as planned,” he said. “Everything that kind of was supposed to happen didn’t happen and I had to wear it off the chin and take a new route at things.”

His voice cracked with emotion as he continued.

“I’ve had days where I cried myself to sleep. It’s been a lot. It’s tested my character.”

The lowest point came last August while throwing a bullpen. He felt something in his elbow and thought he tore his UCL again. An MRI showed that everything was fine but at that point of the season the Mariners thought it best to shut him down and give him a break heading into the offseason.

“That was two years after being in rehab,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think. I was in a very dark place. I ended up taking the rest of the season off, kind of figured it out this offseason, taking one step at a time, not trying to figure it out for the long haul. Last August I felt really far away.”

Carlson didn’t throw from September to November, and when he picked up a baseball again it took a little while to get his confidence back.

“It felt good but I was still weary,” he said. “Thankfully I have a great group of people here and a great group of people back home. We worked it out and that’s what got me to where I am today throwing to hitters.”

It has been a long, tough road for Carlson and the journey back to 100 percent is not over yet. He is not alone in that journey. Two players who have endured similar experiences followed him on the hill today. First was 22-year-old Max Roberts, a 2017 seventh-rounder who also suffered a UCL injury, and then was 19-year-old Juan Mercedes, who is also coming off injury.

While Carlson was the headliner, he asked to hold off on the interview until his teammates had thrown. After each pitcher thrown there were hugs all around. Teammates, staff members, fellow pitchers coming off injury, the latter sharing a common bond.

“You know what someone is going through,” said Carlson. “It’s hard to explain but even before I had surgery I didn’t understand what it really was, what it felt like, how to go about it. When you go through it with other guys you learn from each other. There’s a bond you create when you go through that. A lot of those guys will be in my wedding some day. It’s hard to put into words but I love all those guys. It was awesome.”

Carlson is still in take-it-one-day-at-a-time territory, but the gains he makes now are more rewarding. If he continues to progress he will at some point in the comparatively near future find himself in a game. Coming from where he has come from, it is still difficult to imagine what that will feel like.

“I can’t,” he said with a smile. “I will be stoked. Honestly, it has been so long. Even just seeing a hitter in the box it just brought back so many memories. I’m really happy right now.”

Mariners notes

• The Mariners’ Cactus League Opener against the Padres is scheduled for 12:10 PT Saturday on 710 ESPN Seattle but you will want to stay tuned on Twitter. According to Weather.com, the probability of rain is 100 percent. Only appropriate, I suppose.

• Should the game get underway, Nestor Cortes is scheduled to start. Tentative starters for the next few days:

Sunday vs. Texas: Yusei Kikuchi
Monday vs. Cubs: Marco Gonzales
Tuesday vs. Milwaukee: Kendall Graveman, with Taijuan Walker to follow
Wednesday at Cincinnati: Justin Dunn

• If you don’t follow me on Twitter (and you should @shannondrayer), you missed Ichiro pitching in the situational game.

Ichiro is not your typical batting practice pitcher. He stands a little further back on the mound and brings it. He also mixes in the breaking ball and gave a the B-squad a little extra on Field 6 on Friday morning.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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