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423 days later, Cookie's starting return stellar

Carrasco's gem aided by Ramírez's huge day (2 HRs, 4 RBIs)
@MandyBell02
July 26, 2020

CLEVELAND -- Even when Carlos Carrasco made his emotional return to the mound as a reliever last September after having to step away from the game for three months to battle leukemia, he knew that his first start would be even sweeter. It’s been 423 days since Carrasco last toed

CLEVELAND -- Even when Carlos Carrasco made his emotional return to the mound as a reliever last September after having to step away from the game for three months to battle leukemia, he knew that his first start would be even sweeter.

It’s been 423 days since Carrasco last toed the rubber in a Major League game as a starter, but the 33-year-old couldn’t have looked more at home. In six-plus stellar frames, the righty allowed two runs on five hits with one walk and 10 strikeouts, leading the Indians -- with the help of two José Ramírez homers -- to a 9-2 victory over the Royals on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field.

Box score

“My emotions were really strong today, because pretty much, you guys know, my last start was May 30, [2019],” Carrasco said. “So, I’ve just waited for this moment today. … Keeping my emotions down and just thinking about the way I’m going to pitch was the key today, because just getting here to the stadium this morning, I was so happy to getting back to the rotation.”

Throughout Summer Camp, Carrasco struggled with his velocity, averaging 88-90 mph on his fastball through his first two intrasquad outings -- a faltering he attributed to early camp rust. But in his last tune-up before the regular season on Tuesday, his velocity crept back up towards the usual 94 mph territory, and that carried through to Sunday, as he averaged 93.9 mph on 25 fastballs. That uptick helped him log his 25th double-digit strikeout game, tying Trevor Bauer for the fifth most in franchise history.

"I thought he established his fastball early,” said Indians manager Terry Francona. “And then when he does that, off of that comes the offspeed, and it really gave them a hard time. That was really good to see.”

Other than not having fans in the stands to give him the roaring ovation that he would’ve rightfully deserved, Carrasco couldn’t have asked for a much better return to his usual role. After the club’s offense got off to a brutally slow start in the first two games, collectively slashing .145/.264/.177, the bats came alive to back Carrasco, led by a two-homer afternoon for Ramírez -- the fifth time in his career that he launched a home run from each side of the plate.

Carrasco had been counting down the days until the 2020 season began so he could officially cap his comeback from an unbelievable journey over the past year. He’s been ready to put last year’s illness in the rearview mirror, but he certainly doesn't want to forget what he overcame. An image of him celebrating a relief outing last season was imprinted into his glove over the winter.

“I think I went through a lot,” Carrasco said. “But for me, I just think different things. I never put anything really bad in my mind. It’s always something good. And that’s what I did from Day 1 until now.”

It was June 4, 2019, when Carrasco had to gather his teammates in the clubhouse to break the news of his diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia. He left his team for the rest of the month and slowly began throwing bullpen sessions again in July. After a rehab stint in August, he rejoined Cleveland in a relief role the following month, pitching to a 6.60 ERA in 11 appearances.

“I was a big fan, still a big fan, of Cookie since I was in the Minors,” said outfielder Franmil Reyes, who notched his first RBI of 2020 in the win. “To have the opportunity to be there [in September] and clap hands for him, it makes me really excited to be part of that return of Cookie. Seeing him there today doing that great job that he did today, it made me feel happy for him, especially when he came from a tough year that he had last year.”

Carrasco has settled back into his most comfortable role as a starter. The Indians know what they have in their ace Shane Bieber, and they have great expectations for what Mike Clevinger will do as the No. 2 starter. The team has heavily relied on its starters over the past few years, and the rotation may become even more valuable in a shortened 60-game sprint. With the promising signs Carrasco showed despite what his previous year entailed, the Indians can feel more confident their starters may be their most important weapon once again.

“I think this is a good sign, man,” Carrasco said. “Like I said before, we’ve got a good rotation, man. And you guys know -- and we know -- we strike out a lot of people. I like to strike out a lot of people, too. … I just need to command my pitches, and when I have those pitches working really good, it’s really hard to get on top of the ball.”

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.