Carrasco returns to the mound

Bouncing back from Tommy John surgery, Carlos Carrasco has a terrific opportunity.

By Tony Lastoria
Special to

615 days.

That is the time that has passed since Cleveland Indians right-handed starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco last made a start in a Major League game.

That last start came on August 3, 2011 when he went 7.0 strong innings allowing three runs against the Red Sox only to find out a few days later he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.  The injury resulted in ligament transplant surgery – more commonly known as Tommy John surgery – and kept him out of action the rest of the 2011 season and all of last season as well.

Now healthy, the 26-year old Carrasco is scheduled to make his season debut tonight against the New York Yankees in the second game of the Indians home opening four-game series.

The game will mark the first meaningful appearance Carrasco has made since that last start 615 days ago. Sure, he made a few starts in spring training this year and late last season he also pitched a few innings for Double-A Akron in the playoffs, but this is his first real start in almost two years.

Back before Carrasco got hurt he was establishing himself as a core piece of the starting rotation. He only made 21 starts in 2011 and was 8-9 with a 4.62 ERA, but he had a stretch of seven starts from May 28th to June 29th that year where he went 5-2 with a 2.03 ERA. He struggled in July – probably a precursor to his elbow injury which was about to happen or may have already happened – but he had no doubt established himself as a mainstay in the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Carrasco will now need to prove himself again.

It's acknowledged that Carrasco is very talented. He sports a mid-90s fastball that has been up to 97 MPH and has two good secondary offerings with his changeup and curveball. He pitches around the zone, can get a strikeout, and has long been considered one of the better young pitchers in the game.

But coming off of such a major injury that requires so much time away from the game, it may take some time for Carrasco to get his full feel for pitching back. As is often the case with pitchers that are coming back from Tommy John surgery, command may be the last thing to return. This means that struggles in the early going should be expected from him as he finds his way back. 

In an ideal situation, Carrasco probably would have been best served to make his first few starts of the 2013 season at Triple-A Columbus. The lower-pressure environment of pitching in the minor leagues would allow him to more easily work his way back into things.

But sometimes the best made plans are laid to waste, and that was the case when lefty Scott Kazmir came up lame last week and had to be placed on the disabled list. The injury meant that the Indians had to change those plans and have Carrasco come up and fill a spot in the rotation while Kazmir is out.

But sometimes these things have a way or working out for the better.

If Carrasco is close to his old self, he could be ready to help an Indians rotation in big need of a starter that can bring some consistency to it. At the moment, the plan is to have him only make two starts and by the time his third start comes up Kazmir should be ready to come off disabled list.

But what if Carrasco is sensational in his two starts? What if Brett Myers continues to struggle in his next two or three starts? What if another injury crops up?

Just like the plan to have Carrasco and Trevor Bauer open the season in the minors went to waste, the same could happen if any of the above questions is answered in the affirmative during the next two weeks.

Sometimes early season injuries such as the one to Kazmir can have a major impact on a roster as it opens the door for another unheralded player to come in and take the roster by storm.

Go back to 2007 when the Indians lost lefty Cliff Lee to a right abdominal strain right before the start of that season.  The Indians had to turn to righty Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez) to replace Lee in the rotation. Lee did not return to the rotation that year until early May, but by then Carmona had more than established himself and the Indians had to leave him in there.

Carmona went on to go 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA that season and finished fourth in the American League CY Young voting. Again, it was a completely out of nowhere showing for a pitcher who was the sixth starter for the organization going into the season and was set to open at Triple-A Buffalo. But an injury created an opportunity for him and he seized it.

Whether or not Carrasco seizes that opportunity remains to be seen as the situation is a little different. Carrasco is coming off of an injury while Carmona was not. That said, there are interesting similarities as at 26-years of age Carrasco is the same age as Carmona was in 2007. Both were had the pedigree as former top level right-handed starting pitching prospects. Also, both have battled the same demons with their lack of focus and mental toughness on the mound over their careers.

Tonight, Carlos Carrasco has a chance to shake the cob webs loose in a real game and give the organization more confidence in keeping him around longer in Cleveland.  He is a big part of the Indians future rotation, and after a 610-day absence has a chance to make the Indians think twice about when that future arrives.

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