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Phillies' Appel ripe for return to mound

Like fans, 2013 first-overall pick looking toward Major League debut
February 27, 2017

It comes with the territory of being the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Fans have been anticipating the Major League debut of Mark Appel since he was chosen first by the Astros in 2013, and last year, it seemed like they wouldn't have to wait much longer.

It comes with the territory of being the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft.

Fans have been anticipating the Major League debut of Mark Appel since he was chosen first by the Astros in 2013, and last year, it seemed like they wouldn't have to wait much longer.

Then Philly's fourth-ranked prospect, he was off to his best start since his Minor League debut, posting a 1.64 ERA through his first four starts with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. His ERA ticked upward in May, but that just seemed like a natural product of staying in games longer.

But there was something else going on with the right-hander.

On May 22, Appel exited after being tagged for four runs on four hits and two walks while registering just two outs against Toledo.

Five days later, he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain.

"It was just one of those things where it was feeling dead and fatigued," he said. "I went down to Florida to rehab it. It was going to be a two- to three-week rehab when I was coming back."

But while starting to throw again, Appel's elbow locked up. He told the trainers about it and the Houston native was advised to stop throwing that day. Then he felt fine, until a week later when it came back.

Appel didn't know what was wrong. Many assume Tommy John surgery will be necessary when they hear about an elbow injury, but he immediately nixed that possibility.

"Just from what I heard about people who had had Tommy John, that there was pain on the inside of your elbow and I never had that sensation," he said. "It was just kind of uncomfortable, and I don't really know how else to explain it, but it was just uncomfortable."

The Phillies took a closer look at his elbow. The MRIs and X-rays showed he needed surgery to remove bone spurs. The procedure would mean Appel wouldn't be back on the mound in 2016, his hopes were put on hold once again.

Although the 25-year-old eventually felt at peace with the situation, he wasn't sure what to expect.

"I think there was a little fear that the surgery wouldn't work out, just that there would be issues, even after surgery and stuff like that," Appel said. "But in those moments of either doubt or fear, you just have to remind yourself, 'We have the images, we have second opinions and it's something that needs to be done.'"

Following the procedure, he settled in for months of rehab in Clearwater. While Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development, said the process can be "a monotonous, Groundhog Day-type of existence," he wasn't worried about how the Stanford graduate would handle it because of his maturity.

"The only hard thing about it was not being able to compete. I feel like I was in a really good place mentally, just trusting the process. [There were] very, very few distractions or doubts or anything like that," the 6-foot-5 hurler said. "It was, 'This is the scenario, so I'm going to show up every day and work to make it better, work to get back on the field. Just have a little bit of patience.'"

Appel focused on each individual step toward pitching in a game. He tried to "win each day," by crossing off everything on that day's agenda. Phillies right-hander Alec Asher was right there beside him, rehabbing a shin fracture.
"That was great for us to be able to get to know each other better and develop this cool friendship," Appel said. "We were both going through a time that neither of us wanted to, but we were able to make the most of it and find a lot of positives in the little things."
They would watch Phillies games, go to bed early, wake up early and then put in the necessary work at Spectrum Field. Then they'd strive to leave the pressure behind afterward.
"I think that's one of the biggest things, is finding someone, whether it be a teammate or an outside friend, someone who, when you leave the field, you let go of baseball [with]," Asher said. "When we would hang out, we would just go to dinners, go to movies and try to talk about stuff. We would obviously bring up baseball, because that's pretty much what our whole lives consist of, but it's really just being able to get along with someone that you don't have to just talk about stuff in the workplace, which we were able to do pretty well."
On Sept. 3, Asher left Florida to continue his rehab with Double-A Reading, getting back to the Majors after one tuneup. Appel continued to train and accumulate daily "wins" and before long, he was surrounded by big league campers at Spring Training.
After throwing bullpens and live batting practices, Appel feels great and has no restrictions. The Phillies' No. 20 prospect is back on track as approaches his fifth pro season. Knowing he's been close for the past couple years, Appel's focus continues to be on reaching The Show for the first time.
"I think Mark is very talented; it's obviously Major League stuff. I think it's just a matter of harnessing what he needs to do, being able to make his own adjustments on the mound, night to night, pitch to pitch," Jordan said. "I just think it's probably just overall development as a pitcher. I think he's got more than enough ability and he will figure this out. I think that's it. I don't think it's anything more magical than that. He just needs to continue to develop as a pitcher."
Appel and Asher might be part of a logjam in Lehigh Valley this season. In the upcoming weeks, they will compete with Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta and Adam Morgan for spots in the Phillies bullpen, with the rest likely headed to the IronPigs rotation.
"We feel good about the group that's there, but Mark's right in the middle of it. His stuff will match up with anyone there and I think he knows that. We definitely know that," said the director of player development. "We have about five weeks, a lot can happen and usually the players take care of all this."
When Appel stepped on the mound in a live game for the first time since May on Saturday, it was against a familiar face: Clint Frazier. The Yankees' No. 2 prospect was drafted just four spots after him in 2013, has also been traded in the past 18 months and also hasn't yet made his highly anticipated big league debut. While fans may have hoped to see it sooner -- and perhaps in the Majors -- it was the first time Appel and Frazier faced off.

After all that rehab, the right-hander's most important pitch might have been the first one. It was a strike, followed by a ball and two more whiffs for the strikeout. A couple hits and a wild pitch led to two runs in the first inning, but the Phillies hurler retired the final five batters he faced, including punchouts of Dustin Fowler and Rob Refsnyder to complete his spring debut.

Appel was back.

"Those competitive juices are flowing again, so it's fun. I love it. I'm excited for all the opportunities I'll get to pitch in Spring Training and really just every game this season," he said. "It's just a blessing to be healthy and to be able to play this game that I love and that's my outlook on it."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.