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When a lockout froze MLB, baseball activities ‘only picked up’ and rehab continued for prospects like Cardinals’ Bedell

Ian Bedell Mizzou (copy)

Missouri pitcher Ian Bedell pitches against Western Illinois on March 6 in Columbia, Mo. (Mizzou Athletics photo)

When the lockout went literal and the Cardinals, along with other clubs throughout Major League Baseball, shut doors, latched gates and closed facilities, offseason activities ceased for most players at spots like Jupiter, Florida. Yet, there in the distance at the Cardinals’ training complex earlier this month, piercing the quiet beyond the empty expanse of Field 1, came the sound of one pitcher playing catch and a glimpse from a nearby sidewalk of rehabbing righthander Ian Bedell tossing a football.

Baseball came to a halt in early December, except for those for whom it didn’t.

“It hasn’t stopped at all,” Bedell said recently. “It’s only picked up.”

The Cardinals’ fourth-round pick in 2020, Bedell spent most of the fall at the team’s Florida site recovering from elbow surgery that cut his first pro season short after 68 pitches. On Dec. 2, the first day of the ongoing lockout due to MLB’s expired Collective Bargaining Agreement, Bedell did what he had the day before and the day before that and almost every weekday for the months before that — he went to work.

Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas, two members of the major-league rotation, could no longer come around for check-ins or conversation. But as a minor-league player who isn’t on the 40-man roster or represented by the players’ union, Bedell could continue his rehab uninterrupted with minor-league staff and remain on schedule for a significant step this week.

The righthander and former Mizzou starter returned home to Iowa in mid-December for the holidays, and he was ready to throw lightly off the mound Tuesday for the first time since Tommy John surgery in May. What the lockout did not delay, being snowed in did. Several inches of snow in the Quad Cities on Tuesday morning postponed Bedell’s climb up the mound a day. His twin brother Connor is set to be the stand-up catcher Wednesday for about 20 throws from the mound.

For the first time since pitching for the Cardinals’ High-A team on May 9, Bedell will extend his hand and greet an old friend.

And then let go.

It’s been months since he’s seen his changeup.

“I’m sure it’s going to be terrible the first day,” Bedell said from the Quad Cities during a recent phone conversation. “Trying to get into the huge pronation of it. But it will be fun. Finally get to throw something other than a straight fastball.”

On Christmas Day, Bedell reached the seven-month milestone since reconstructive surgery. A few weeks earlier, he took a couple of online finals to complete 12 hours of coursework this past semester at Mizzou. Those have been the intertwined threads of his rehab — building range of motion and strength in his right elbow while working toward a marketing degree. He was able to accelerate the academics during his recovery because “why not take advantage of the time you have when could just be sitting around doing nothing.” His throwing program remains on target, advancing from this week’s light mound throws to bullpens by spring and, if all goes well, a May return, 12 months after surgery.

After holidays at home, Bedell is scheduled to return to Jupiter in mid-January.

It’s unlikely major-leaguers will be cleared to use the complex by then as owners and players’ union do not plan substantive negotiations until after the New Year. A new CBA is required to open the facilities to 40-man players.

Prospects like Bedell’s progress will continue whether baseball’s does or not.

Unusual has been the rule for Bedell’s first year in pro ball. Bedell, 22, had his first spring training under pandemic protocols that limited workout sizes, interaction and movement beyond the ballpark and hotel.

There was one thing about spring training that seemed familiar and that’s how he felt off the mound. One of the youngest college players selected in the shortened 2020 draft, Bedell considered returning to Mizzou for another season before the Cardinals, his favorite team as a kid, met his price with an $800,000 signing bonus and opportunity. Limited to four starts in his junior year, Bedell never felt comfortable with his changeup, tumbled often into upside down counts and allowed five homers in 24 1/3 innings. He misplaced the touch he had the season before during a sophomore year at Mizzou with a 1.56 ERA in 40 1/3 innings and then a 4-0, 0.59-ERA turn in six starts in the Cape Cod League, where he caught the Cardinals’ eyes. He struck out 36 and walked only three in 30 2/3 innings on the Cape in 2019.

As he let loose his four-seam fastball, landed his knuckle-curve and, best of all, corralled that changeup, those sophomore sensations surfaced during his first spring training.

“The mix of all of it and the high level of confidence,” Bedell said. “It was like riding a high the entire season. Going back to that. It felt like the movement, the command, the velocity — all of that stuff was there.”

And then things got better.

Bedell’s spring earned him a spot as the opening day starter for High-A Peoria, the Cardinals’ affiliate 75 minutes from his hometown and regular visitors to Quad Cities. His parents were there in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on May 4 as Bedell debuted with a dud. He allowed three runs and four hits before getting a third out. Five days later, he appeared in relief, struck out two in two strong innings. And then pain persisted. He got 2 2/3 innings into his pro career before the team doctor told him the results of a scan: torn ligament.

“I thought you’d say forearm flexor (tendon) and I’d be an out a couple of months,” Bedell recalled thinking. “My initial reaction was just to laugh.”

He spent the majority of first pro season in a arm brace to limit movement.

He called it his “bionic arm.”

“It sounds a lot cooler than it is,” he said.

Bedell’s parents are both from Arkansas and through them he became a Cardinals fan as a kid – a fondness aided by the Cardinals’ Class A affiliate at the time in the Quad Cities and Bedell’s favorite player, center fielder Colby Rasmus. Bedell returned home there to Iowa after the surgery and then relocated his rehab to Phoenix with a friend who also had Tommy John surgery. In Arizona, he watched baseball, including Cardinals games because “I was actually able to watch the Cardinals, unlike Iowa where games get blacked out. Makes no sense.”

In August, Bedell returned to Jupiter, first living with some members of his draft class and then bunking with two Yankees minor-leaguers using a nearby facility. That was where he first interacted with Hudson as the sinkerballer neared his return from elbow surgery.

“He would throw out pieces of knowledge here and there,” Bedell said. “What you should be looking for when you’re watching film or looking at numbers. We played catch and at one point my arm slot was too low. He kind of pointed it out, and I could feel it when he did, just being more aware of where my body is in motion. That was in the first three or four weeks.”

Shortly after the lockout started, Bedell’s throwing — he’d loosen up with a football before the prescribed flat-ground sets with a baseball — shifted to a nearby Jupiter park and then to minor-league areas on the facility. He got his workouts in, make strides, and then plunge into the last of his Marketing 4030 or Finance 4500 work. His days were measured by classes and by inches — the progress made toward his degree and back toward the mound and his career.

The classes helped break the monotony and isolation of rehab. Trading in the bionic arm for a baseball also helped. Bedell found a batting practice ball a few feet from his 2013 Honda Accord and tossed it in. When he was able to pick up a baseball again, that souvenir of spring had come along for the ride. He could hold it in his hand, flip through grips as his arm regained health. He sought that same sense he had last spring and will chase this spring.

He’ll have company by then.

“The takeaway for me is everything is still there,” Bedell said. “And if I can be effective while not feeling at my best, and then if we can get back healthy, where we were prior to the injury — that should be a fun time to be alive.”

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