High-A Carolina right-handed pitcher Clayton Cook is someone who came out of high school with good prospect pedigree when the Indians selected him in the ninth round of the 2008 Draft. He quickly asserted himself as one of the Indians’ best young pitching prospects, but early in the 2012 season some persistent pain in his right shoulder changed his career outlook like the snap of a finger.
"I showed up to spring training in 2012 and there was nothing on my ball and I didn’t know where the ball was going," Cook recalled. "I thought I was losing it mentally or mechanically so I tried to make all of these mechanical changes because I thought it was my mechanics. In my first start in Carolina in about the second or third inning, I sat down and went back out there for the third inning and the first warmup pitch felt like a knife shoved in my shoulder. After every half inning when I would sit down, it would get worse and worse."
Many did not even notice Cook was hurt as he actually pitched well in spite of the pain, however, the pain continued into his next few starts.
"In the second game, it happened in the first inning and it just kept getting worse and worse," Cook said. "I shouldn’t have thrown that third game. I tried to gut it out but I could barely get through one inning as it was very painful."
The injury did not come out of nowhere as Cook initially felt some discomfort in the shoulder area late in the 2011 season, but it did not hurt badly as it felt more like a pinch and he was still throwing the ball well. But after the pain became too unbearable, the Indians finally shut him down, had him evaluated and ran his arm through several tests.
"We tried to rehab it several times," Cook noted. "We tried a number of things like cortisone and pretty much anything you could try we tried to help get over it and it was not happening. Eventually it got to the point where surgery was the only option."
Surgery is often the last resort for any player. Initial tests showed that Cook had only strained his rotator cuff and it was recommended that rest and rehab would allow it to heal naturally. But after several setbacks in the rehab process, it was later confirmed in an MRI that he had a torn labrum and needed corrective surgery. At that point the decision was academic.
"I wanted surgery about two months before I had the surgery," Cook said. "It was obvious that was the route I was going to have to take if I was going to continue to play. I was mentally ready for it. I was still nervous obviously knowing it is not a guarantee and the odds are not great that you come back fully healthy from it, but at the same time knowing that it was the only way to get back to where I wanted to be."
Shoulder specialist Dr. Craig Morgan performed the procedure in early October 2012 in Delaware. The surgery and outlook for a long rehab came with a wide range of emotions for Cook, something that he battled with internally for many days and nights.
"Your head spins and you have many sleepless nights," Cook said. "You had your future where it is hard to make it when you are healthy, but it clouds up the future a little bit more when that happens and makes you think about a lot of things."
Not only did Cook miss almost the entire 2012 season rehabbing and working through his shoulder injury, but he missed all of the 2013 season as he worked back from surgery. It was a long recovery period and one that really put his mental toughness to the test, especially since he spent almost 18 months in Arizona rehabbing.
"It is tough because you see all of your buddies playing and progressing through the system and you feel like you are just stuck and left behind," Cook said. "You are away from the team and not in the clubhouse. That is the hardest thing is being outside of the clubhouse and that camaraderie of playing with guys and competing out there. You are kind of shoved aside. You go in and do your rehab and you leave. You are not part of a team. It is a tough deal."
Having so much down time and no game action also allows the to mind wander, which naturally brought about questions in Cook’s mind whether he would pitch again and start to think about life after baseball.
"It has been a learning experience," Cook said. "It has been tough. Pretty much your entire career and whole life is on hold for two years. You hear horror stories left and right about shoulder injuries and you don’t know whether you are going to come back and you start thinking about life after baseball. You come back and have some setbacks and it took me longer than normal, but now that I am back and in games and pain free it kind of makes you appreciate things a little more and appreciate what you have that’s for sure."
For now, at least, a lot of those questions and concerns have been answered as Cook’s commitment to his rehab and hard work have him back on a mound in Carolina almost two years to the date of when he last pitched in a real professional game. He was activated last week and in two appearances he has totaled 8 2/3 innings and allowed three runs on seven hits, two walks and has six strikeouts.
It has been a long road back but Cook feels great.
"I feel really good," Cook beamed. "I have some mechanical things I obviously need to work on and pain-wise and stuff-wise I am pretty good. The velocity will come. My velocity is in the high 80s and low 90s right now, which I will take right now in the first couple of starts after shoulder surgery. I think all of that other stuff will come with the mechanical changes I make and as I get more comfortable and build my strength and endurance."
Cook is just happy to be pitching in real games and not pitching in extended spring training games or simulated games in Arizona.
"Just getting out there in a real game and getting the repetition and getting back into the swing of things is a big difference between sim-games and live bullpen sessions," Cook said. "It is like riding a bike as the more experience and more comfortable you get the game is the same."
With the season rapidly approaching the midpoint, Cook is not worried about where he pitches and in which role he pitches. He just wants to continue to improve every single time he pitches, build up his arm strength, fine tune his mechanics, and compete and get guys out. Most of all, he wants to stay healthy all year.
"I want to be healthy," Cook stated. "That is the number one goal — to be healthy and be better every single day. Those are the only two things I am worried about right now."