CLEVELAND – Carlos Carrasco knew something was wrong, he just didn’t know what.
The Cleveland Indians right-hander didn’t feel like himself when he was on the mound during the first two months of this season. He would start to tire earlier in games and the recovery time between starts became longer.
Carrasco turned 32 in spring training, so he isn’t exactly a kid. However, he also felt the cause of his fatigue was more than just age or the cumulative effect of playing 15 years of professional baseball.
The reason behind Carrasco’s sluggish start turned out to be shocking. Doctors determined he was suffering from myeloid leukemia, a treatable form of the disease.
Carrasco got the news in early May. Just about four months later, he was back on the mound for the Indians on Sunday, pitching an inning of relief against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The kind of news Carrasco received would be sobering to anyone, perhaps even more so to a professional athlete in peak physical condition, even one who had a non-invasive heart procedure five years ago.
However, Carrasco did not fret or mope. The native of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, did not wonder if his career might come to a premature end during the first season of a four-year, $47-million contract he signed to forgo the opportunity to become a free agent in November.
“Once I got the diagnosis, I just went, ‘OK, I just want to work through this and I just want to pitch again and be around my teammates,’” Carrasco said.
That is not surprising to anyone who has spent even a slight amount of time around Carrasco. Known to everyone as “Cookie,” he has an upbeat attitude and easy smile that endears him to teammates, coaches and fans.
Couple Carrasco’s personality with his strong family ties and it is easy to understand why he was so certain he could beat leukemia.
“My teammates, my family, my wife (Karelis) – I had a lot of people behind me,” Carrasco said. “My wife, from Day One, kept saying, ‘You’re going to fine’ and that’s what kept me strong.
“I have five kids. I have a big family. I have my wife and my parents. They were all with me. That’s what had me so positive.”
Carrasco also had his baseball family to keep him in a good frame of mind. While he was away from the team receiving treatment, he received a steady stream of texts and phone calls from other Indians’ players checking on his well-being and keeping his spirits up.
“They would want to know how my day was going,” Carrasco said. “I knew I had them all behind me too. They really supported me right from the time I got the diagnosis.”
Carrasco also got through his ordeal surprisingly well from a physical standpoint. He said he lost just around five-to-seven pounds during treatment and it did not take long to regain full strength.
From a pitching standpoint, Carrasco was able to rebuild his arm strength just like any pitcher coming off a more conventional injury. He slowly went through a progression from playing catch to long tossing to throwing off a mound to pitching in rehab games in the minor leagues to eventually completing his comeback Sunday by participating in a pivotal game between two teams in the thick of the American League wild-card race.
It was an emotional scene.
Not only did teammates step in front of their dugout and give Carrasco applause when he jogged in from the bullpen, but the Rays’ players acted in kind. That Carrasco allowed one run in one inning of a game the Indians lost 9-6 was irrelevant to his teammates.
They were thrilled to have Cookie back on the mound.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor gave Carrasco a hug after his final warmup pitch. Second baseman Jason Kipnis admitted to nearly tearing up when Carrasco entered the game.
“I can’t relate to what he’s going through. I can’t even imagine,” Kipnis said. “I know it hasn’t been easy. I talked to him most days. I just definitely love seeing him back out there. I was happier for him than anything else. I didn’t think I would get (emotional) but I did.”
Carrasco figures it will be even more emotional when he pitches at Progressive Field for the first time.
Carrasco received a thunderous ovation when he was introduced to the Cleveland crowd during the All-Star Game in July as part of Major League Baseball’s Stand Up to Cancer initiative. Many fans around northeastern Ohio can be found wearing “I Stand For Cookie” t-shirts.
While Carrasco has been a starting pitcher throughout most of his career, it is somewhat fitting that he has returned to the active roster as a reliever. The Indians did not feel there was enough time remaining in the season for Carrasco to build a high enough pitch count to start games.
With six weeks remaining in the 2013 season, Terry Francona’s first as the Indians’ manager, Carrasco was demoted from the rotation to the bullpen when he struggled to regain his form after missing the previous season while recovering from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
At that point, Francona realized he had a special person on his roster. Carrasco never complained about the demotion and responded so well that he got a second chance at being a starter for the last two months of the 2014 season. He became a key member of the rotation until being felled by his illness.
Thus, Francona is not surprised with how Carrasco handled being diagnosed with leukemia.
“He didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him,” Francona said. “I think at times he tried to hide that. We tried to explain to him that sometimes that’s what you’ve got friends for, to lean on. We’re here for you.”
And now Carrasco is there again for his teammates. Francona plans on using him in low-leverage situations for now but figures to eventually deploy him in important spots as the Indians try to reach the postseason for a fourth-consecutive year.
“I just want to pitch, it doesn’t matter to me how or when,” he said. “I just want to keep the team in games and help us win games.”
Winning has been Carrasco’s objective every time he has put on a uniform. However, he admits his perspective has changed following the events of the last few months.
“The thing that I learned is whatever happens, happens for a reason,” he said. “The leukemia made me get closer to the people that need help. I can feel those type of people, kids who have the same thing that I have. Those kind of kids, I never forget them.”
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