ST. PETERSBURG -- The buzz began on Sunday long before the loudspeakers at Tropicana Field announced that Carlos Carrasco was up and warming in the seventh inning. It grew steadily during the seventh-inning stretch and erupted in a standing ovation from the crowd and chants of, “Coo-kie! Coo-kie!” as the
ST. PETERSBURG -- The buzz began on Sunday long before the loudspeakers at Tropicana Field announced that Carlos Carrasco was up and warming in the seventh inning. It grew steadily during the seventh-inning stretch and erupted in a standing ovation from the crowd and chants of, “Coo-kie! Coo-kie!” as the right-hander jogged in from the bullpen.
Then Carrasco toed the rubber, took a deep breath and fired a strike right down the pipe. After a nearly three-month fight against chronic myeloid leukemia, the Indians’ heart and soul was back on the hill where he belonged.
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“It was really fun to get back to my teammates and get back to the mound,” Carrasco said. “It was great the way they supported me from Day 1 to now. It’s been unbelievable, and it was a great moment.”
At the tail end of a frustrating sweep at the hands of the surging Rays, Carrasco’s 19 pitches in the bottom of the seventh inning of Sunday’s 8-2 loss to Tampa Bay represented a very bright spot. If nothing else, the emotional reception met by Indians and Rays fans alike announced the return of a fierce competitor at just the right time.
Major League rosters expanded Sunday, and Sept. 1 has long been earmarked a day for many teams to take advantage of the extra manpower and welcome young talent as a reward for their work in the Minors. For the Indians, Sunday was also a day to welcome back a player who’d been fighting a very different fight.
As Carrasco approached the mound, both dugouts left their seats to cheer at the rails in a show of solidarity. For a moment, the battle between the lines didn’t matter nearly as much as the one that had occurred outside of them.
“That was more Major League Baseball,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “This is a group of brothers. This is a special group. Yes, we’re competing against each other day in and day out, but this is something bigger than baseball. When it comes down to it, we’re standing together as one and we are there for him and to support him.
“I loved seeing that.”
Carrasco headlined Sunday’s roster additions, a group that included Ryan Flaherty, Eric Haase, James Hoyt and Dan Otero. The 32-year-old started his baseball rehab assignment Aug. 19 and made four relief appearances totaling five innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus before rejoining Cleveland in St. Petersburg on Friday.
Manager Terry Francona said Friday that Carrasco’s return would be a feel-good situation regardless of the outcome, but to know Carrasco at all is to understand that there was no way he would let his story -- no matter how inspiring -- overshadow his efforts on the field.
As Rays hitter Eric Sogard strode to the plate, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor walked up to the mound to give Carrasco a heartfelt hug that sent fans behind the dugout into another round of cheers.
“He told me, ‘Welcome back, Cookie,’” Carrasco said. “‘This is you right here. We’re behind you, just go out there and throw the ball.’”
From there, it was all business. Carrasco quickly induced Sogard into a harmless groundout that Carrasco himself jogged to first base to cover. He then dropped to a crouch to cradle Austin Meadows’ choppy comebacker and flip it to first. With a fastball hovering between 93 and 95 mph, if Carrasco had any jitters at all, they were well hidden behind his smooth approach.
He was unflappable even when Rays slugger Tommy Pham took a 1-2 pitch to the left-field corner and Travis d'Arnaud followed suit with an RBI single, rebounding to coax Joey Wendle into grounding out to end the frame and his reunion.
Carrasco was met with the same reception jogging off the field as he had been entering the game, receiving a warm ovation from the crowd and another energetic hug from Lindor. Once he descended the dugout steps, Carrasco was greeted by an emotional Kipnis, who’d maintained nearly daily contact with his pitcher throughout the ordeal and found it hard to put the moment in words.
For half an inning on Sunday, Carrasco’s return provided a nice break from the pressures of a playoff push. Tampa Bay’s sweep this weekend meant the Indians fell a 1/2 game behind the Rays, who have the first American League Wild Card spot. Cleveland is now just a 1/2 game ahead of the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card.
The AL Central-leading Twins also won on Sunday to move 5 1/2 games ahead of the Indians in the division, so there is still much work to be done if Cleveland is to play October baseball.
Monday will bring business as usual, as well as a return to Progressive Field and all the advantages being home provides. For just a little while on Sunday, though, the Indians celebrated something a little more important.
“It hit me when you see [Carrasco] out there just ... you think you almost would never get a chance to do that again. It hits home,” Kipnis said. “Just kind of how proud he made [us] to see him go out there.
“I can’t relate to what he’s going through. I can’t even imagine. I know it hasn’t been easy. I talked to him most days. And I just definitely love seeing him back out there. More happy for him. I didn’t think I would get [emotional] like that, but I did.”
Dawn Klemish is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Tampa. Follow her on Twitter @Sportsgal25.