CLEVELAND -- Carlos Carrasco couldn’t find the answer.
No matter what he did, the Indians starter just couldn’t sustain a rhythm on the mound. He got off to a rough start to the year, posting a 12.60 ERA after three outings. But over his next six trips to the mound, he lowered it down to 4.18. Then, nothing felt right.
Over his final three starts, his velocity would dip tremendously as he got deeper into games:
First inning: 94.8 mph (average four-seamer velocity)
Second inning: 93.6 mph
Third inning: 93.1 mph
Fourth inning: 92.9 mph
Fifth inning: 92.2 mph
Sixth inning: 91.8 mph
Seventh inning: 91.7 mph
“We had conversations about his workout routine,” Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. “Obviously, he has a big family, is he getting enough rest? Sometimes that’s hard to do with a house full of kids. It was strange.”
“I remember me and [Trevor Bauer] kept looking at him with his mechanics and talked about the different drills he could do and try to throw hard again,” starter Mike Clevinger said. “But he had all energy in the room all the time. So it never really seemed like [something was wrong], that’s kind of the scary part behind all of this.”
The 32-year-old stood in front of his locker in Chicago after what would be his final start of the 2019 season – unbeknownst to him at the time -- on May 30. He had given up six runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings and looked defeated in his quest to figure out what was going wrong.
“After each start, I work so hard to get results,” Carrasco said at the time. “I’m trying to put myself in a good spot right now, [trying to get back to] pitching well. But the last couple starts have been crazy, man.”
Little did he know, his body was being overtaken by something that couldn’t be fixed by watching film or spending more time in the weight room. Just days later, Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia.
Shock, confusion, maybe a little bit of fear. That is the reaction of most when hearing, “You have cancer.” No matter what stage or form, the battle against such a brutal disease is no easy task. But never once did Carrasco question why he had to embark on this journey.
“Just how I can get back to the mound?” Carrasco said of his first thoughts after receiving the news. “That's what I was thinking, because I never think anything bad. I always think good thoughts. As soon as I got the diagnosis, I just went and said, 'OK, I'm a strong man. I just want to work through this.'”
The Indians had taken punch after punch throughout the first two months of the season. The team opened the year without star shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis. Clevinger landed on the injured list with an upper back strain after two starts and Corey Kluber’s name was penciled beside him on May 1 with a fractured right forearm.
It may have been a tough pill to swallow for Carrasco when he first was told the news, but his wife, Karry, continuously reminded him, “This is nothing for you,” which helped him stay strong. But the right-hander was about to learn if his team would be able to respond the same way without him taking the mound every five days.
Something wasn’t right.
Word started to spread throughout the Indians’ clubhouse, as they were instructed to gather by their lockers before the series opener against the Twins at Progressive Field on June 4.
“It kind of trickled down a little bit before like, ‘Hey, there’s maybe something wrong with Cookie,’ so everyone was kind of like rattled,” Clevinger said. “Then we got to hear it from him. That was a heavy hit that day.”
Carrasco addressed his team with members of the front office and his coaching staff by his side, revealing that he needed to step away from baseball to begin this fight against cancer.
“One of the tougher moments [of my career] for sure,” 13-year veteran Tyler Clippard said. “When you hear stuff like that, it’s hard news to hear. … At the time, they didn’t have all the information. But more information came through in the next few days and it helped a little bit.”
“It was crazy,” outfielder Tyler Naquin said. “It was kind of [a reminder that] like, life can be short in a way.”
“Nobody wants to win games more than I do,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But when you’re dealing with something like that, it can put it in perspective pretty quick.”
The same day that the Indians were hit with Carrasco’s health scare, they were facing one of the toughest tasks in Major League history. The team crawled its way to June 4, facing an 11 1/2-game deficit behind the Twins in the American League Central.
There’s no way to be able to mentally or emotionally prepare for the news that was dropped on the team, but the Tribe had two options in how it could respond: crumble or fight back.
“I think that can change the mindset and also gives you a little something extra to fight for,” Clevinger said. “We had everything going against us already, and then that happens on top of it and it’s like, ‘You know what? Why not? Why can’t we go out there and do it now?’”
For anyone holding a crystal ball when the Twins had a double-digit lead on the Indians three months ago, it would be hard to believe that Cleveland would have erased that lead just 70 days later, even if the truth was right in front of you. But when the news reached the public the following day, referring to the diagnosis as a “blood condition,” his teammates all said the same thing: “We’re winning for Cookie.”
“I think it was just when something like that happens, it just kind of wakes you up a little bit,” Naquin said. “You might come into the field, ‘I’m tired, I’m this, I’m that, I went 0-for-4 last night.’ You know, you get emotional, you feel down on yourself. It’s a lot of games, a long year. Something like that happens, you take things into perspective like, ‘I might be tired, but my teammate over there just got diagnosed with leukemia.' … Sometimes you get a little check and you’ve just got to keep riding out.”
That moment sparked a magical ride for the Tribe. The team erased the 11 1/2-game deficit in the AL Central (although it ultimately fell eight games behind once again) and posted the best winning percentage in the American League from June 4 through the end of August. That 50-27 record in that span is seven more wins than Minnesota secured during that timeframe.
“I don’t want to say [the news] helped us,” reliever Nick Wittgren said. “But it made us realize it’s a game and if we’re not going out there, having fun, appreciating it and playing the way we’re capable of playing every single day, then what are we really doing? It just kind of, put the bigger picture into what’s going on here.”
From the start of the season through June 3, Cleveland owned the third-lowest team batting average in the Majors (.226), fifth-worst OPS (.681) and fifth-lowest wRC+ (76). From then through the end of August, they posted the eighth-highest batting average of all 30 clubs (.269), seventh-best OPS (.818) and eighth-highest wRC+ (108).
“One hundred percent,” Clevinger said when asked if the impact of Carrasco’s news transferred on to the field. “It got everybody in the mindset of his perspective. You weren’t thinking about your numbers that day or thinking about the home run getting hit off you or the strikeout. It was irrelevant at that moment in time. So I think that can change the mindset and also gives you a little something extra to fight for.”
Gone, but certainly not forgotten
When Carrasco said he was stepping away from baseball, he truly meant that he would take some time away from the clubhouse, the games and his teammates. But that didn’t mean the guys on the roster didn’t all stay in contact.
The Indians were never afraid to show how concerned they were about their beloved “Cookie” and just how much they wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. Early on, his teammates would text him to see how he was responding to his treatment.
“How are you feeling today? What’s going on? Talk to me,” Kipnis said of his texts to Carrasco. “I ask, ‘How’s the body? How’s the head? How’s everything going on?’ Just to listen and start the conversation to let him know I’m there. I know how tired he gets from the medication. Maybe how the first medication didn’t work. It’s just not an easy road, and one that you never wish upon anybody.”
Despite how much his teammates were there to support him, including a moving Stand Up To Cancer tribute to Carrasco at this year’s All-Star Game, it was Carrasco who became his team’s biggest cheerleader.
“He’ll text us the whole game,” Clevinger said. “We’ll come back and we have 10 messages from Cookie in the group like he’s talking to himself in the group text. That was nice.
“You win a game and Cookie’s the first one texting, ‘Hey guys, I’m watching,’ blah, blah, blah and making his jokes. And that’s how he is. If you’re around him every day, it’s a treat. You never know what you’re gonna get out of him, that’s why it’s so fun.”
Toward the end of June, Carrasco started popping back up around Progressive Field and eventually began sitting back in the dugout during home games.
“I mean, guys love having him around, I love having him around,” Francona said. “I missed him when he wasn’t around. He’s always there for guys during the game, and in my opinion, that’s big. When guys pitch, they can’t just be invested the day they pitch or the position players pick up that in a hurry. He’s there all the time.”
And while Carrasco said being back around his teammates helped him forget about his health scare, it was his brothers in the locker room who seemed to benefit from his presence the most.
“Once he was finally allowed back in the dugout, it was like letting a kid loose,” Clevinger said. “He was back yelling at the umpires, yelling about the strike zone, yelling at us, messing with us, but those first couple of days he was back in the clubhouse, you could tell that his medicine was taking a toll on him. It’s kind of tough to see, but he was still battling through it, trying to go throw, asking every day when he could throw, things like that.”
As the team got deeper into July, Carrasco was almost like a permanent fixture at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, bringing enthusiasm and laughter to a clubhouse that was in the process of catching the first-place Twins. It was July 19 and Shane Bieber was trying to get locked in on the mound against the Royals when he couldn’t help but crack a grin.
“I think in the first inning, after my first pitch, he threw one of those [Justin Bieber] ‘whoaaa whoa,” Bieber said of Carrasco yelling the lyrics to “Baby.” “I kind of looked to the dugout and smiled. It’s awesome. It’s a pleasure just to be around, whether he’s talking smack or not talking smack. He’s one of the best teammates that we’ve ever come across and that I’ve ever come across, so it’s always nice to have him here.”
Eyeing the ‘pen
Carrasco was sure to put in his press release on June 5 that he’d return to the mound this season. But it finally had reached a point that working his way back as a starter would be too daunting. However, the Indians had another idea.
“His eyes kind of lit up when we talked about that, just because I think it seems attainable,” Francona said. “Like I think when he started thinking about building up as a starter, it kind of seemed a little daunting, a little far away. This is something he can latch onto and be a part of our team and really help us, and it doesn’t seem so far away.”
Carrasco overcame bouts of nausea and fatigue from his treatment, losing nearly 10 pounds since his diagnosis. He had to be shut down for a few days in July during his bullpen sessions because his body was unable to keep up with his pace. But when the calendar flipped to August, Carrasco had his eyes on the prize.
He was sent on his rehab assignment on Aug. 19, where he was slated to toss one inning in relief at Double-A Akron. It would be his first time serving as an everyday reliever since moving to the ‘pen in 2014 from the end of April until the beginning of August. He may have 10 years of big league experience under his belt, but no amount of service time could help his nerves.
Carrasco sat in the bullpen for five full innings, unable to sit still in his assigned folding chair. He'd hop up between frames to throw, he’d pace around the bullpen rubber and he couldn’t stop himself from shaking.
“All the guys over there started laughing, ‘Hey are you OK?’” Carrasco said. “I started like shaking a little bit. But it is what it is. I felt excited to come back.”
He ran across the outfield grass in the sixth, as the crowd at Canal Park rose to its collective feet to honor Carrasco’s incredible journey back to the mound in just over two months. He may have been full of nerves, but when he released the ball from his hand, everything went away. He turned around to look at the radar gun after pitch No. 1: 97 mph.
“It was surprising for us,” Willis said. “We were actually surprised in his bullpen sessions. He was consistently 90-92 [mph], the action on his secondary pitches were normal, really as good as we’ve seen. We were excited about that to see it bump up as it did.”
“It’s really nice,” Wittgren said. “I mean, he’d automatically be the hardest thrower in the bullpen right now.”
After three more Minor League relief outings, Carrasco was activated from the injured list on Sept. 1 and experienced the same nerves waiting in the bullpen in Tampa Bay as he did in Akron.
“When they told me, ‘Get ready, you’ve got the next inning,’ I just started like, ‘Oh my God,’” Carrasco said. “I couldn’t control myself. But like I said, as soon as I released the first pitch, everything went away.”
In his emotional return to a big league rubber, the righty averaged 94.8 mph (maxing out at 96.3) on his four-seamer -- the exact velocity that he averaged in the first inning of his final three starts prior to his diagnosis.
“I thought he threw the ball really well,” Francona said. “His heart was probably racing, I’m guessing. … I’m sure it was pretty emotional for Carlos.”
No matter how moving his first outing was, Carrasco was more excited to take the mound in front of his fans at Progressive Field. But it quickly made for an awkward mix of emotions, rather than a touching return home.
The Indians had just taken a three-run lead against the White Sox. It was setting up for a perfect ending for the Carrasco comeback story, as he was making the transition to conclude the feel-good narrative and get back to normalcy, being viewed as just another weapon in the Tribe’s bullpen.
The ballpark had fallen completely silent as each head turned toward the door in the right-center-field wall to see if Carrasco was making his way out of the bullpen. The video board went black for a few seconds before it showed him walking down the steps toward the outfield grass. The first notes of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” boomed throughout Progressive Field and the 17,397 fans erupted in cheers as they all rose to their feet.
“That was great, all the fans right there,” Carrasco said. “As soon as I started running down to the mound. That was great, it was unbelievable.”
"I thought it was outstanding,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “Even our guys were applauding. Listen, you know what? When you realize there are things that are certainly more important than what we do, and for him coming back this year after having been diagnosed and getting treated and having gone through everything, God bless him. Good for him."
For the first time since May 25, Carrasco was back on the mound in Cleveland. He jogged out to a welcoming ovation at the beginning of the eighth inning as the video board flashed “Carrasco” in big letters. When he looked slightly to his right, he saw sections of people behind the Indians’ dugout holding up cut-out pictures of his face.
“I didn’t see him come in at first,” Clevinger said. “Then I saw him come out, so I ran back out to the top step and it was another one of those get the chills kind of moments. I was just happy to see him back out there.”
But the fairytale ending wasn’t in the cards for the right-hander.
Carrasco gave up back-to-back singles to lead off the inning, but settled back in to strike out the next two batters that he faced. He just couldn’t hold on long enough to escape unscathed, hanging a breaking ball to James McCann, who crushed it for a game-tying, three-run homer. Eloy Jimenez followed in the next at-bat with a solo shot of his own to provide the final margin in the Indians' 6-5 loss before Carrasco recorded the final out.
The moment that Carrasco walked off the field, having just lost the lead, was the epitome of the 32-year-old’s battle over the last three months.
He has said it time and time again: The support of his fans, teammates and family has carried him through one of the lowest and toughest points in his life. And while he couldn’t close this chapter with a happily ever after, it was the fans who were there, once again, to lift him up.
Carrasco walked off the mound, visibly disappointed with his performance, looking straight down to the ground from his walk from the mound to the dugout. But as he felt the weight of the loss fall squarely on his shoulders, the crowd was there to lift him up, giving him another roaring ovation in honor of his incredible return to the game while battling such a vicious illness.
“It was great to see those fans giving the support,” Carrasco said.
As if he hasn’t proven it enough over the last few months, it’s going to take more than one rough night to get this Cookie to crumble.
Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.