PEORIA, Ariz. — You see it every day in spring training, so often it barely registers — a pitcher throwing a live bullpen session on a back field. It’s as routine as spring training gets.
But Sam Carlson’s live ‘pen on Friday — a mere 20 pitches, taking up all of five minutes as he faced minor-league hitters — might have been the most emotional event of the entire spring for the Mariners.
You could see it written all over the huge grin on Carlson’s face when he finished, and the heartfelt hugs he exchanged with teammates, coaches and training staff who flooded Field 3 to watch Carlson.
And you could especially feel it afterward, when Carlson got choked up explaining the ordeal of the past 32 months that brought him to this field. Still just 21, Carlson has faced enough adversity to last a lifetime.
“I’m stoked,” he said. “I mean, honestly, it’s been so long. But even just seeing a hitter in the box, it brought back so many memories. I’m really happy right now.”
That has rarely been Carlson’s prevailing emotion since the Mariners chose him in the second round of the 2017 draft as a Minnesota high schooler. A first-round talent, Carlson was headed to the University of Florida until the Mariners made a bonus offer — $2 million — that changed his plans.
But after throwing just three innings in the Arizona Rookie League in the summer of 2017, Carlson experienced soreness in his right elbow. Thus began a nightmare scenario that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery in July of 2018, and enough setbacks, hardship and torturous rehab along the way to make Carlson question whether it was all worth it.
“I’ve been at points in the game where I’ve literally hated it, and I’ve thought, am I ever going to throw again?” he said. “I’ve had days where I’ve cried myself to sleep. It’s been a lot. It really tested my character.”
When Carlson faced Joe Rizzo on Friday, it was the first time he had thrown to a hitter in any form of competition since shortly after the draft in 2017. As he said in an Instagram post, “I have learned more about myself than I could have ever imagined.”
But the best news is that Carlson threw free and easy Friday, displaying the electric stuff that once had him ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the organization. He says he’s finally pain-free. The road ahead is long, and nothing is guaranteed, but suddenly the Mariners have another dynamic arm to add to the minor-league stockpile.
Carlson said he slept like a baby Thursday night, secure in the knowledge that he had done absolutely everything he could to prepare. When he first hurt his arm, however, he had no clue that it would be pushing three years before he returned to a mound to face hitters.
“Nothing went as planned, to say the least,” he said. “Everything that was supposed to happen, didn’t happen, and I had to wear it off the chin and kind of take a new route at things. I really wish I would have pitched before today, but I wasn’t able to.”
The low point, Carlson said, came this past August, when he thought he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament again. The initial tear of the UCL is what prompted Tommy John surgery in the first place, so it was a devastating feeling.
“This was 13 months post-surgery, two years after being in rehab,” he said, his voice cracking at the memory. “I didn’t really know what to think. I was in a very dark place.”
Mind you, this setback happened at a point when the Mariners were close to sending Carlson back out to compete. Instead, he took the rest of the season off.
Rather than a tear, it was determined Carlson had an impingement in his elbow.
“My elbow joint wasn’t moving as smoothly as I like,” he said. “But we have a great training staff here — we figured it out and got everything under control. It’s been a roller coaster, but last August, I definitely felt very far away.”
Carlson delayed talking to the media Friday because he wanted to watch two other pitchers with whom he had shared the ordeal of rehab throw their ‘pens. He said that the bond he feels with the pair — Max Roberts and Juan Mercedes — and other injured pitchers is indescribable.
“When you go through it with other guys, you learn from each other,” he said. “The bond you create — 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. They’re all awesome.”
While he was sidelined from baseball, Carlson took classes in business management at Arizona State University and now has junior standing. But baseball remains in the forefront of his plans, which are now more tangible than they have been in a long time.
“This is what I love doing,” he said. “It was awesome. I’m just excited to get to work, because I’ve been dying to do this since I was 18. I had to put it on hold, but now I’m back at it.”
In a strange way, it has been hard for Carlson to hear people encourage him by reminding him that he’s still young.
“It’s one of the hardest things to hear,” he said. “You love baseball and you don’t want to be sitting down not playing baseball when you’re 20 years old. There’s nothing in the world I want to do more than be on this field.”
In fact, it was that burning desire that got Carlson through the despair and doubt, along with the support of friends and family.
“I always had a light at the end of the tunnel, man,” he said. “I know how I feel when I’m on the mound, and it’s just like, I’m in my own world. I wanted to do what I love, and this is what I love. I just have this burning drive in me. It’s kept me going.”
The end of the tunnel has been finally been reached, Carlson hopes, and his light is shining again, illuminating what was once such a dark place. Friday, Carlson was finally back in his world, and the smile never left his face.