‘Unbelievable’ comeback: Cubs’ Kohl Franklin brings the heat in first live session

Cubs right-handed prospect Kohl Franklin hasn’t pitched in a game since 2019.

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Cubs prospect Kohl Franklin throws live batting practice at the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Cubs prospect Kohl Franklin throws live batting practice at the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — A crowd formed around Field 5 at the Cubs’ Sloan Park spring-training facilities, where Kohl Franklin faced batters for the first time this year, a big step in his recovery from an oblique injury.

His was the last simulated game of the day, so his teammates filled the bleachers. Behind the backstop, coaches gathered pitch data. Cubs vice president of pitching Craig Breslow and major-league pitching coach Tommy Hottovy looked on. 

Franklin’s final pitch cracked in the catcher’s mitt, and the sea of blue dispersed, buzzing. 

“Well, Kohl looks pretty good,” one prospect said to another. “Kohl looks pretty good.”

Franklin hasn’t thrown in a game in two years. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season, and then a left oblique injury sidelined him in 2021. But he’s on track to return this season. On Saturday, the last day of prospect minicamp before minor-league camp officially opened, he faced three batters in a one-inning sim game. His fastball touched 99 mph twice. 

“It’s unbelievable,” he said after walking off the field, grinning. “I can’t wait to tell my parents.”

Cubs coordinator of pitching development Casey Jacobson said he couldn’t find words to describe how impressive Franklin’s performance had been.

“He’s lost two years, and you look back, and the frustration — I can’t ever imagine it, never, never going through that myself,” Jacobson said the next day. “But he’s responded incredibly well. He’s been very mature. He’s gone about the process and done the tedious day-to-day stuff at a really high level that got him to the position where he was yesterday.” 

Franklin was playing long toss a few months before 2021 spring training when he felt a pain as if he’d been hit in the back with a golf club. The stiffness wouldn’t subside, and his left side swelled. 

An MRI exam revealed a torn oblique. The injury also took off a piece of a rib, Franklin said. 

“I cried to my mom, honestly,” he said. “I’d worked so hard to get back to where I was, and then feeling like it’s reset. It was super tough.”

Months passed before Franklin could ease back into activity. He received two platelet-rich plasma injections as part of his treatment. Over the summer, he dealt with another flare-up.

“It was a grueling process,” he said.

Franklin didn’t go through it alone. Veteran right-hander Jonathan Holder was on the injured list all last season with what the Cubs described as a right shoulder strain. 

When Franklin started rehab exercises, Holder encouraged him to take his time. Rushing through steps wouldn’t help speed up the recovery for that kind of injury. After rehab sessions together, Holder would take Franklin to dinner to catch up.  

Franklin estimates he threw six or seven bullpens in August and September and then shut down for a regular offseason so he would be fresh entering this spring. 

He was relieved when he reported to Mesa and his physical exam pointed to a successful recovery. As Franklin built back up for the spring, Jacobson noticed a difference in how the pitcher carried himself. 

“He knew all the work has really paid off,” Jacobson said. 

Franklin had trouble sleeping Friday night, with a 15-pitch live session scheduled the next day. Afterward, Franklin, as Jacobson put it, “floated” off the mound.

“I’m so ecstatic,” Franklin said. “I’m so happy to be here.”

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