116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Every guy in the minor leagues has a story. Some are better than others.
Jordan Gore of the Cedar Rapids Kernels was an infielder here before the Minnesota Twins converted him into being a pitcher. Zach Featherstone of the Kernels was an outfielder the Twins moved to the mound.
Kernels pitcher Blayne Enlow survived a horrific car accident as a young teenager in Louisiana that left him wheelchair bound for months. He recovered, rehabbed and became a high draft pick and prospect.
Then there’s Jon Olsen. Oh, what he’s been through.
The short of the long story is the pitcher, who turned 24 on Thursday, started a game last week for the Kernels. It was his first professional outing, even though he signed a contract with the Twins in 2018.
“It’s hard to even put it into words,” Olsen said. “It’s just been so long. So many people I want to thank just to get me back to this point. Taking that long off of baseball is pretty tough.
“This is what I love to do. I love to compete, I love facing hitters in real games in front of fans. This is real baseball. It was good to get back to that. Man, it felt really good to get back out there.”
Now the long of the long story about what was a 1,120-day gap between official outings.
Olsen was an all-Pac 12 Conference performer in 2017, so highly regarded he pitched for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team that summer. But the late winter/early spring of his junior season in 2018 featured one malady after another.
It began with having his appendix removed. He returned, but was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of a USC hitter as the teams played a game that March at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“Totally reconstructed the right side of my face. Brutal. It was really bad,” Olsen said.
Multiple surgeries eventually were performed, one just to set his vision completely straight because his right eye literally was, as he put it, “shooting up.” Miraculously, Olsen came back and pitched less than a month after the line-drive incident, wearing a clear protective plastic facemask.
But he felt discomfort in his right, throwing elbow in his second appearance back for UCLA, ironically against Kernels teammate DaShawn Keirsey Jr. and the University of Utah. The diagnosis was a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
That meant Tommy John surgery.
“I really had never been injured before that point,” Olsen said.
Despite everything, the Twins were intrigued with Olsen’s potential, drafted him in the 12th round and signed him, figuring he’d do the usual rehab and be back on the mound sometime in 2019.
It’d turned out to be another two years after that.
“I was very, very thankful for the Twins to take me in the 12th,” Olsen said. “To be completely honest, I knew I belonged there. I know what I can do on a mound. I’m just really thankful to get back out here and show the Twins what I can do now. I’m thankful to them for sticking with me through it all to get to this point and be healthy.”
Olsen had his elbow surgery and rehabbed, yet still didn’t feel right, experiencing pain in the neck and shoulder areas. Back to the doctor he went, where he was told he had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a condition that’s generally rare but more common in baseball pitchers because of the wear and tear on their arms. Blood vessels and nerves between your shoulder and first rib become compressed.
Another surgery was performed in the middle 2019 for that to be relieved.
“It has allowed me to get to know my body, it’s helped me progress as a pitcher, as a person,” Olsen said. “That was all within about two months. I honestly can’t even remember now. In that year, I probably had about seven surgeries. A few more on my eye and face, the Thoracic Outlet surgery. Just a whirlwind for me, for sure.”
Then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out the entire 2020 minor league baseball season and delayed Olsen’s return for yet another year. He said he rode out the pandemic living with his parents, Tom and Debbie, in the Los Angeles area.
When he showed up for spring training last month, he faced live hitting for the first time since that fateful game against Utah. Again, that was April 2018.
Olsen went four innings last Sunday against Peoria, allowing five hits and a run, walking one and striking out five. His stuff looked firm and he surprisingly had really good command of it.
“His first pro outing was really good,” said Kernels Manager Brian Dinkelman. “Had his breaking ball working. They had a few hits, but it wasn’t a ton of hard contact. He did a nice job of minimizing the damage.”
Olsen’s velocity was low-90s in his first couple of innings but dipped into the high-80s the final two. He’s confident he’ll be able to maintain and increase velocity as he gets into a routine and gets more innings under his belt.
For now, the big thing, the only thing, is he’s pitching again. Somehow, someway.
“It’s really weird,” he said. “For how long it was, I just had no doubt I was going to get back to the point where I was going to compete again. I just really had self-belief. Grinding through the tough times, like I said before, there were a lot of people who helped me along the way. But, man, (his first game), the three years of waiting and rehabbing, getting better, that was what it was for: to compete. That’s why we play this game.”
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