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College | Story | 3/26/2020

Yovan Adapts Through Adversity

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Kenyon Yovan (Deborah Mundorff/Oregon Athletics)

It was all in front of Oregon’s Kenyon Yovan as the Ducks traveled down to Lubbock, Texas to open the 2019 spring season against Texas Tech.

Just weeks before, Yovan had been named the Preseason Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year by Perfect Game. He was a Preseason All-American in just about every publication out there, as well as a preseason member of the Golden Spikes Award watch list.

The year prior, his sophomore season in Eugene, Yovan was named first-team All-Pac-12 for the second consecutive year after going 6-4 with a 2.98 ERA, while also serving as the team’s closer for the early part of the year, recording five saves before moving into the weekend rotation.

He had been up to 95 mph on the mound the week before the team went to Lubbock. He felt good, despite his hand feeling a little bit cold at times when he was throwing.

The hand got colder as he was warming up in the bullpen right before taking the mound against the Red Raiders on the opening Friday night of the year.

The back of his forearm started cramping up on top of that.

“I thought it was fine,” Yovan said in an interview with Perfect Game. “I always shake my catcher’s hand before we go out and he was like, ‘Holy cow, your hand is ice cold.’ It was 70 degrees outside at that point.”

The Ducks have warmed arm sleeves in the dugouts for the pitching staff. They’re meant to keep your throwing arm warm in between innings.

Yovan wrapped one around his hand to try to warm it up before he took the mound. It didn’t do much good.

“After the first inning, I was warming up and my hand started cramping up and I wasn’t really able to open it,” he said. “I was still throwing alright, but then about the eighth pitch I threw, after my warmup pitches, it really started to cramp up and I couldn’t really move my thumb underneath the baseball. So I was like 80 percent offspeed that day in the two innings that I threw. I couldn’t throw my fastball. It was cutting. My velo dropped eight miles per hour right away. We didn’t really know what was going on. I just told my coach right away, ‘Hey, I’m trying to win this game, but I don’t think I can go.’”

Two innings, one hit, one run. His day was over.

He ended up spending three days in the ICU back in Eugene, but at that point, Yovan still didn’t think his season was over. The doctors pumped some blood thinners through his arm and everything looked good to go.

The Ducks went to Hawaii in early March for a four-game set against the Rainbow Warriors, and Yovan traveled with the team expecting to work out of the bullpen.

He had already thrown a bullpen on the island and felt good, but as he warmed up to close out an Oregon win, that same numbness came rushing back into his hand.

“The back of my hand cramped up and I couldn’t straighten my fingers out,” he said. “I went straight to our trainer and said, ‘This isn’t good. I don’t know what’s going on…’ At the end of the day, I had surgery May 31, and it was a clot in my shoulder that was sending smaller clots down my arm and ended up piling up in my hand and blocking everything.”

•••••


Yovan knew he wanted to stay in-state to play his college ball.

He was the No. 1 prospect in the state of Oregon according to Perfect Game, and a top-50 righthanded pitcher in the 2016 class. He was also going to be able to contribute with his bat and be a two-way player, although his biggest – and most immediate – impact would likely come on the mound.

The Beaverton native had grown up an Oregon fan, mostly because of the success the football team had had recently. He cheered for Oregon State on the baseball field, though, due to the fact that Oregon didn’t actually have a baseball team from 1983-2009. It helped that the Beavers had such a rich history, as well.

That fact was part of the reason that made him choose the Ducks, though. Yovan relishes a challenge.

“Beginning of my sophomore year I committed to Oregon because I wanted to be the Oregon kid that took the Ducks to Omaha for the first time,” he said.

At that time, Yovan was already widely considered a legitimate two-way prospect.

He attended the 2014 Perfect Game Underclass All American Games and was placed on both the Top Prospect List and Top Prospect Team at the event, with scouts highlighting his two-way ability.

“I feel like my arm was what developed the earliest. I’ve always thrown hard,” he said of his prep career. “The first time I hit 90 [mph] was my eighth grade year. So I’ve always been a kid that throws harder than most people. But it was always both for me…I was kind of known for the power in my bat and the power in my arm. That’s what I was known for. If I was getting the ball at the beginning of the game to start, I was also in the middle of the order to hopefully get some runs on the board for myself.”

The Oregon coaching staff was all-in from the start on Yovan being a two-way player in Eugene. He thought it would probably be in the lineup at the beginning of his career.

The first work he got with the Ducks was at the corner infield spots, like he thought, right when he got to campus his freshman year.

A broken left wrist during fall ball put a damper on his swing though, and a heavy dose of long toss was prescribed in an effort to get his throwing arm ready in the meantime.

He was right back in the starting lineup at the end of the Ducks’ opening series of the 2017 season against Fresno State as the team’s designated hitter, however. Three hits in his first two starts had him off to a hot start, too.

“Down at Fresno State, I got put into the lineup for the last game and played really well, but it went downhill from there,” Yovan said. “Then the closer role, it kind of took the reins of the season for me.”

Yovan had closed in high school, briefly, his freshman year. He would start a game early in the week on the mound, and if the situation called for it later in the week, he would close a game out on the mound.

That was four years earlier. He had no intentions on being Oregon’s closer his first year on campus. Then Oregon’s closer got hurt. Plans changed.

“I knew I would eventually find innings,” Yovan said. “I didn’t think they would be to that magnitude…The first week the coaches were like, “Alright Kenyon, you’re going to be our closer for opening weekend…If we need to close a game out, you’re going to get the ball.’ So I said ‘Okay, I’ll be ready to go.’ I came out and I was up three miles per hour from what I was the previous week. My adrenaline was pumping. I got the save. I just kept building up, building up, building up.”

He ended up piling up 15 saves on the year while sporting a 1.97 ERA and a 6-1 K/BB ratio. It took a wheelbarrow to deliver all of Yovan’s postseason awards to him.

Collegiate Baseball named him its Freshman of the Year and put him on its Second-Team All-America team. He was named First-Team All-America by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and Second-Team Freshman All-American by Perfect Game. He was also named First-Team All-Pac-12 Conference.

“I think my competitive edge on the mound translated to the back end of the bullpen really well, but I knew I could start,” Yovan said of his freshman year. “Our rotation was really good my freshman year, so that was the role I was put in. I was like, ‘Alright if that’s the role I’m put in, I’m going to put the team in the best place to win and succeed.’”

He was back in his closer role at the beginning of his sophomore year, and the results didn’t differ. Yovan had five saves through his first nine appearances on the year, carrying a 2.57 ERA along with him to that point.

The starting rotation had thinned out a bit at that point, however, according to Yovan. Whereas in his freshman season it made sense to have him work out of the bullpen because of all the talent in the rotation, the need in that spot became too big to ignore by mid-March of 2018.

On March 24, Yovan got his first start against California, going five full innings, allowing one run on five hits while striking out four Golden Bears.

“We were struggling on Sundays, but our first two guys were throwing well,” Yovan said. “So we moved a guy back to Sunday, and I hopped into the Saturday spot against Cal…The week after, we played Stanford, and I went six innings, one hit. I’m pretty sure they were ranked No. 2 at that point. I just continued to improve from there. My arm continued to get stronger throughout the game. Most of the games I threw, my velocity was higher at the end of the game than it was at the beginning.”

His performance against Stanford – six innings, three hits, no runs, and nine strikeouts – earned him Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honors and cemented his spot in the rotation for the rest of the year.

As for the remainder of the year, it looked much the same. By the end of the season, Yovan sported a 2.98 ERA. He struck out 98 hitters against 37 walks. In his last start of the year, against Arizona, he threw a complete game, allowing just one run on two hits and six strikeouts.

He was again named First-Team All-Pac-12 Conference for his work on the mound, while also hitting .233 in 116 at-bats for the Ducks.

Yovan split his time that summer with Team USA and on the Cape. He was named to Top Prospect lists for both of those experiences.

That was the resume Yovan carried with him to Lubbock, ready to make his Friday night start to open the year against the Red Raiders.

•••••


Once he knew his year was over, it actually made the rehab process more relaxed.

If he wasn’t going to try to cram the rehab process into a two month window in order to make it back for the postseason, he realized he could take his time with it and really do it right.

“It was just time,” Yovan said. “It was a lot of nerve stuff, making myself stretch it back out and don’t irritate them or stretch them too fast. It’s not like I was rushing back…It was the beginning of summer and I wasn’t playing summer ball. I wasn’t going to pitch in fall ball, or at least not right away. So we were taking our time with it.”

No bullpens. No batting practice. No upper body lifting. Mostly stretching.

For a player who is used to taking his full round of BP cuts, then running down to the bullpen to get a workout in on the mound, things moved slowly.

The difficult part was not knowing when he would feel normal again. He started throwing in August and threw his first bullpen since his May surgery the week of Thanksgiving 2019.

“We made it a longer process than it probably could have been, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t push anything because we were focusing on the beginning of the season, not fall ball,” Yovan said.

The way Yovan put it, quite frankly, his arm wasn’t where it needed to be by the time the 2020 season started. The plan heading into the season was for him to be a starter, just like the year before. The arm strength wasn’t there yet.

The impact he was going to have on the team wasn’t going to be on the mound. At least not at the beginning of the year.

So the 2017 Collegiate Baseball Freshman of the Year, the two-time First-Team All-Pac-12 performer, the Golden Spikes Award Watch List member, all for his work on the mound, who to that point in his career had a .207 batting average, decided his impact would be elsewhere.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be ready to pitch right away, so I put extra time into my hitting,” Yovan said. “If I’m not going to be able to pitch and help the team, I for sure have to make an impact for this team in the lineup. I put all my eggs in that basket outside of practice, made sure to do extra hitting…My confidence started rising and lights turned on, and the gamer inside of me just wanted to play. Being a full year out, there wasn’t a part of me that was like, ‘You’re not going to succeed.’”

To say his hard work simply paid off would be to dismiss the amount of success Yovan had in the small amount of time we had with the 2020 college baseball season.

To simply call it “hard work” belittles the hours it took to re-dedicate himself to a craft that had become 1B, behind his work on the mound in which he had had so much success.

From the first game of the season against Minnesota, head coach Mark Wasikowski put Yovan in the three-hole of the Ducks lineup.

He went 3-for-5 in that first game. He went 2-for-4 against San Diego in game No. 2 of the year. One hit in four at-bats against Pepperdine the next time out. 3-for-3 against Grand Canyon in the fourth game of the year. He hit two home runs in that one. 3-for-4 against Nevada in the fifth game.

By the time the season got cut short, Yovan had collected 24 hits in 15 games, after grabbing 32 base knocks in his first two seasons combined. All told, he ended the year hitting .429 with four home runs, nine RBI, 22 runs, and 15 walks.

His batting average was third-best in the conference. His four home runs were also third-most. He was third in slugging percentage and tied for second in runs scored. He was top-five in walks and on-base percentage.

“The biggest thing was just trusting myself,” Yovan said. “I just took the closer mentality into my hitting. Telling myself that no one is going to beat me. Breathing while I’m in the box and making sure I’m not tense and stressed out.”

His arm was getting closer, too, according to Yovan. He had made two appearances out of the pen.

It was a difficult process to balance, because he was hitting so well. His arm wasn’t ready to start, so he couldn’t be in the lineup as a pitcher/designated hitter. The coaching staff also didn’t want him to wear himself out on the mound and lose some of the impact he was having in the three-hole in the lineup.

The plan was to build the arm on off days until it was strong enough to start.

Now, there’s not much of a plan. These are uncharted waters for most everybody in college baseball.

Yovan is back home now, with plans to work out in Eugene soon. The weight room is only allowed to have so many people in it at a time right now, so the team can’t get together.

He’s playing a lot of golf. It comes the closest to satisfying the competitiveness the spring season fires up inside of him.

“Right now it’s pretty much an offseason,” he said. “I’m trying to get past the thoughts that our season is over and everything and take the rest of the week to recuperate…Midseason mindset is tough to turn off, so being able to find other things to satisfy that competitive mindset, whether it’s golf with your friends or whiffle ball or something to keep your mind going, because who knows what’s going to happen with everything.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty, sure.

But one thing is certain – by the time play starts again, whenever that is, Yovan’s arm, the one with so many honors and awards attached to, will be full-go. On top of that, he will be wielding a bat that was unmatched by anyone not named Spencer Torkelson this spring in the conference.

And that certainly bodes well for his Ducks.



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