For Clayton Cook, it had seemed like nothing but bad things happened to him in Wilmington, Delaware. On Wednesday, the Indians right-hander finally made some positive memories in the city.
About 25 months after his professional career was nearly derailed there, the Mudcats starter returned to the hill for the first time since 2012, limiting the Blue Rocks to a run on three hits over 5 2/3 innings in an eventual 3-2 loss in a Class A Advanced Carolina League doubleheader nightcap.
"It was kind of a surreal thing," said Cook, who struck out three and walked one. "I didn't know if I would ever have this opportunity. At several points, I didn't know if I'd ever pitch at all."
The right-hander left in line for the win, exiting the game with a 2-1 lead. But Kansas City's No. 7 prospect Bubba Starling spoiled that with a walk-off triple in the seventh to give the Blue Rocks a doubleheader sweep. They won the opener, 9-4.
The outing was the first for Cook since April 17, 2012, when he pitched one inning at Wilmington before exiting with pain in his shoulder. The discomfort wasn't a new thing -- he'd been dealing with it since the start of Spring Training -- but it was the first time he had been unable to work through it.
After some rest, the 2008 ninth-round pick tried rehabbing his shoulder in Carolina and then at the Indians' Spring Training complex in Arizona. He didn't return to game action that summer, though, and underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum that fall -- in Wilmington, of all places.
That so much of his story has unfolded in that city is a bizarre twist for Cook, but he's happy to have turned the tide Wednesday.
"I had my last start here, then had the surgery here, then made my first start back here," Cook said. "It's pretty wild how it's worked out. It felt good to get out there, get that bad taste of this place out of my mouth."
The Amarillo, Texas native encountered a few setbacks after the surgery. He tried changing the angle on his release, but was still throwing through pain early in 2013. He returned to Wilmington yet again, where he received a cortisone shot for bursitis in the shoulder later in the summer. After another month off and some more rehab, he was finally able to throw pain-free late in '13.
Cook returned to Spring Training this season healthy, but lacking his old stuff. As the spring went on, his velocity began to tick up, and after a few outings in extended spring training, the 23-year-old said his fastball was sitting between 88-92 mph -- not quite to his low- to mid-90s marks he used to manage, but a step in the right direction.
On Wednesday, Cook used his fastball, changeup and curve, with his offspeed pitches right around pre-surgery form.
"I was able to command all three of my pitches and get ahead for the most part," he said. "It was a special feeling coming off the mound and to go out there again with my teammates, go out there and compete. It's definitely really special."
Wilmington failed to score against Cook through the first five innings. In the sixth, the right-hander retired Jack Lopez on a popup to short. Starling singled and advanced to second on a balk. After Royals' No. 6 prospect Hunter Dozier lined out to second, Zane Evans laced a double down the left-field line that scored Starling and ended Cook's day.
Louis Head entered in relief, walking Michael Antonio before striking out Cody Stubbs to keep Cook in line for the victory.
His day done, Cook asked Carolina strength coach Scott Nealon if he could postpone his postgame running and drills to watch the end of the game. Nealon obliged, and even though it didn't end the way he wanted it to, that didn't spoil Cook's sweet day.
"It was a special night," he said. "I haven't been here in a long time."
Wilmington won Game 1 behind multi-hit games from three players, including Dozier, who went 2-for-2 with a double, three runs, an RBI, two walks and a stolen base. On the mound, Kansas City's No. 4 prospect Sean Manaea earned the win with 10 strikeouts over five innings. The left-hander allowed three earned runs on six hits, including a homer, and walked three.