It was a start 22 months in the making. The last time Chris Kohler toed the rubber in a competitive baseball game was August 28, 2013. In two innings of work against the Arizona Summer League Rangers, Kohler gave up two unearned runs on four hits, the most hits he had given up all season.
The 20-year-old, third round pick out Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, CA by the Oakland A’s was dominant. At just 18 years of age, Kohler both baffled and blew away opposing hitters.
The 6’3” lefty collected 32 strikeouts in 22.2 innings, appearing in 13 games and starting two, finishing the season with a 2.78 ERA.
Then, as quickly as he had climbed, he fell. An elbow injury that was supposed to sideline him just a month became two months. Two months became three, and before he knew it, the pitcher missed the entire 2014 season.
“It was definitely long,” Kohler said of the rehab process. “I had a little set back, I was only supposed to be out for a month and a half, ended up having to get an injection in my elbow. Took me down two more months, then I started working and bullpen and the long road to recovery.”
Twenty-two months after his start against the Rangers, Kohler returned to a similar spot — the mound.
Making his debut for the Vermont Lake Monsters on the same day he was added to the official roster, Kohler struggled early. After recording the first out on the first pitch of the game, Kohler got wild, plunking Aberdeen’s Drew Turbin and giving up a double to right field. With two outs in the inning, Kohler relinquished a single and back-to-back doubles as the IronBirds jumped ahead to a 3-0 lead.
“Heart was definitely pumping, for sure,” said Kohler. “I was pretty nervous. Just tried pounding the zone. First inning was a little tough, pounded it too much, so I tried to get in on their hitters and it ended up working out.”
Just as quickly as Kohler seemingly lost control, he regained composure and got back to work. After Vermont tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the first, Kohler returned to the same dominant form he exhibited in high school and at Arizona. Over the next three innings, Kohler locked down the Aberdeen bats, putting away 11 of the next 12 batters he faced. Rather than go by way of the K, Kohler induced soft grounders after soft pop ups, working quickly and barely laboring.
With the game still tied at three in the fifth, Kohler quickly found himself in trouble. Ricardo Andujar reached on an infield single and Turbin reached on an error, putting runners on first and second with just one away. But again, Kohler found his way. After hustling to first to barely beat Ademar Rifaela on a soft grounder to first baseman Chris Iriart, Kohler got Austin Pfeiffer to strike out swinging, ending the threat and keeping the game tied at 3.
Kohler departed after giving up six hits and three runs, while striking out three on 79 pitches, 54 of which found the zone.
After Kohler left in the fifth, the IronBirds jumped on the Lake Monster bullpen, tagging Tyler Willman for four runs in just 0.1 innings of work, before adding two more runs on a pair of hits against Jesus Rivas, plating eight runs in the inning.
Vermont would add two in the bottom of the frame before Aberdeen threatened to pull away, extending the lead to 12-5 in the eighth inning on three straight singles.
The Lake Monsters wouldn’t go quietly, as they answered in the bottom of the eighth when Chris Iriart brought home Gabriel Santana with a two out RBI single to right. Shawn Duinkerk followed with a line drive single to right field, extending his hitting streak to five and loading the bases.
Seong-Min Kim followed by launching the Lake Monsters’ second grand slam of the season, a blast that landed underneath the soccer bleachers in left, coming with 15 feet of clearing the bleachers all together.
The Lake Monsters would be unable to get any closer as they went down in order in the ninth, falling 12-10. The win would be the first on the season for Aberdeen, as Vermont fell to 1-4.
As for Kohler, the team may have lost but the confidence and ability that warranted a third round pick is certainly back.
“It’s good just knowing that I can do what I used to,” Kohler said. “Elbow felt perfect, (velocity) is there, it’s all there. Still working on my curveball a little bit to get back to where I was, change-up is good. Very confident.”