Back in the swing of baseball
Having perservered through a grueling year to get back on the diamond, Kenyon Yovan was playing with an extra spark at the start of the Oregon Ducks' 2020 baseball season.
And playing very well.
Fifteen games into his redshirt junior season, the Beaverton native led the Ducks with a .429 batting average, 24 hits, four home runs, 22 runs scored and 15 walks. He had six multihit games and had three or more hits five times.
"I was exactly where I wanted to be," Yovan said.
Then, of course, it all came to a distressing halt.
While every college athlete was forced into the waiting game by COVID-19, the end of the college baseball season seemed especially unfair for the Westview High graduate. Yovan's 2019 season lasted two innings because of arm trouble that turned out to be quite serious. Once he emerged from the medical scare, Yovan worked hard to improve his range of motion, improve his strength and fine-tune his swing, hoping that a big 2020 would get him back on the upward trajectory to professional baseball.
So, losing the 2020 season was a double-whammy.
"I was pretty devastated," he said.
Yovan remained in Eugene through spring term. Not knowing when baseball might be possible, he spent time golfing ("Getting better. Down to a 9 handicap") and fishing.
But, Yovan is thrilled to have the chance to get back to baseball. He is playing for the Portland Pickles in the Wild Wild West League. The four-team league for current college players is holding all of its games at North Marion High in Aurora. The season was halted for one week when two players tested positive for COVID-19, but resumed play July 23 with plans to hold games six days a week through mid-August.
It's not a lot of baseball, but it's a lot better than none for Yovan.
"Playing for the Pickles is an amazing opportunity," he said, praising the work Pickles management did to organize this makeshift season.
Through the first six games, Yovan was batting .278 with a home run, a double, six runs scored and five RBIs. The Pickles entered this week with a 4-2 record, second to the 5-1 West Linn Knights.
Yovan's short college season was good enough that Collegiate Baseball named him its first-team All-America designated hitter. That makes him the first Oregon player to earn All-American recognition as a pitcher (2017) and as a hitter.
As good as his hitting was this spring, and as challenging as two brief pitching appearances were, it was those 1.1 innings on the mound that felt special for Yovan.
"Doctors and specialists told me I was never going to throw again. It was emotional to be able to have the opportunity to pitch again."
The saga began Feb. 15, 2019, a warm afternoon in Lubbock, Texas. Yovan was Oregon's opening day starter at Texas Tech. He had been experiencing a feeling of coldness in his right hand for a couple of weeks, and even with temperatures in the mid-80s he was not able to grip the baseball correctly.
"It was 85 degrees at Texas Tech and my hand was ice cold," Yovan remembered.
His day, and his season, lasted all of two innings.
Yovan soon found himself in intensive care, where for 72 hours he was treated with blood thinners. But it would be a few months before the cause of his problem was discovered. And, if Yovan hadn't been among the top 50 prospects for the 2019 baseball amateur draft, he might not have gotten the MRI that showed the golf-ball size blood clot in his shoulder.
"I was angry about being told my hand was the problem for so long," Yovan said.
He also knew he was lucky.
"The doctors told me I was a couple of months away from losing fingers, maybe my arm, or even dying," Yovan said. Untreated, blood clots can be fatal.
The MRI was administered by the Texas Rangers medical staff. They recommended the specialist at Baylor University who performed the surgery that, after a difficult rehabilitation process, allowed Yovan to return his focus to baseball.
Though he was unable to throw for several months, Yovan returned to Eugene and threw his effort into becoming a better hitter.
"Even if you can't throw, you can hit all day," he said.
Through hours in the batting cage, the weight room and time spent with coaches analyzing hitting, Yovan's confidence came back. He also was working toward becoming the Ducks' closer.
"I rediscovered my swagger," he said, explaining how all of the time invested in hitting returned the confidence he'd always had on a ball field.
Support from family, friends and teammates was critical throughout a challenge that Yovan said "made me a better teammate. It made me a better friend. It made me a better person."
It also made him appreciate the gift of baseball, and his ability to play the sport he loves.
Yovan, who is close to earning his general science degree from Oregon, is looking forward to his redshirt senior season with the Ducks. He said there is real excitement within the program. Head coach Mark Wasikowski recruited Yovan and many of his teammates to Eugene before becoming the head coach at Purdue, making Wasikowski's return as the head coach a smooth transition.
During his college summers, Yovan has played all around the country. In 2016, he was first-team all-West Coast League with the Cowlitz Black Bears. In 2017, Yovan pitched in the Northwoods League and in 2018 in the Cape Cod League, considered the best of the college wood-bat summer leagues. In 2017 and 2018, Yovan pitched for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, appearing in nine games and pitching well over a combined 12.2 innings.
Pitching is now unlikely to be Yovan's path to professional baseball. With the Pickles, Yovan's focus is improving his defense.
"Right now my goal is to get a lot of work in at third base. My goal is to be a great third baseman," he said.
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