Signing your first pro contract can be a blur.
Mitchell Kilkenny doesn't remember a lot about June 23, 2018, when he signed his contract with the Colorado Rockies after being drafted in the second compensation round, the 76th player selected overall.
Two days later he was having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament that showed up in his team physical.
"It's funny, for how … maybe monumental is the wrong word, but how big of a time that was in my life, it's hard to think back and remember any of it," Kilkenny said 13 months and one day after surgery, the afternoon after an impressive four-inning performance on July 26.
He allowed only two hits to the Rocky Mountain Vibes, struck out six and walked only one despite the game being delayed for more than an hour for rain and lightning.
It wasn't his first impressive start this season — he's been everything the Rockies had hoped for when they made the Texas A&M right-hander their third pick last year, behind pitcher Ryan Rolison and first baseman Grant Lavigne.
In eight starts, 28 1/3 innings, Kilkenny has a 1.59 ERA, has allowed only five earned runs, struck out 25 and walked only six. Teams are hitting only .165 against him.
His lone rough start was July 13, when he allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings against Great Falls. After that, Grand Junction manager Jake Opitz and his staff decided it was time for a break, so Kilkenny skipped his next start. With the Rockies using as many as six starters, that gave Kilkenny 12 days between starts.
"Where he was at in his rehab we figured maybe it was time to take a step back before he takes another step forward, got him fresh and he looked great," Opitz said.
Kilkenny's as competitive as they get, so to sit out his first pro season wasn't easy.
"Once you have the vision, it's hard to walk away from it. At first it was a bunch of pent-up energy putting down the ball unexpected for that long," Kilkenny said. "Once they gave me the green light to go work out and lift weights, that helped a lot.
"Just being indoors all the time and not being able to do what you love ... They'll give you milestones, they'll let you know, 'Hey, just so you know you're making real good progress,' but my vision from the very start was to get back on the field and start winning again. That was the only milestone I really cared about."
He left tracking the rehab milestones to the Rockies' medical and training staffs. He stayed focused on getting the strength back in his arm.
"The rehab process is what you make it," he said. "The first milestone is getting back on the team and competing again. Then the intensity and how long they let me go is another good milestone. Really it's just contributing to the wins. It's a team game, so you have to have team milestones. You can't think too much about each step, you just think about the next pitch."
One he got his right arm out of the sling, he was antsy to grab a baseball again.
"Way earlier than they wanted me to," he said with a grin when asked when he felt ready to throw. "The pain and the tightness goes away, the trainers did a great job with that. Once you can straighten your arm again, you feel like you're good enough to go back.
"They constantly had to tell me no, you're not ready, I don't care how you feel, the ligament's not set yet. But really, it was just an itch that wouldn't go away to get back on the field and start winning again. It's different for each person."
He was finally given the OK to throw off a mound in March and was deemed ready to pitch when the players were assigned out of extended spring training. Colorado sent him to Grand Junction, and Kilkenny started the home opener June 18. It was a scheduled one-inning debut, 12 pitches.
A bit nervous, he walked his first batter on four pitches, got a groundout and a fly ball, then struck out the final batter he faced on three pitches.
The next test was to see how he bounced back, so he was back on the mound after two days off, throwing two innings against the Vibes, basically a live bullpen session.
Each outing got an inning longer, to where he threw five shutout innings in a 1-0 win at Orem on July 6. Then came the loss to Great Falls and the two-week break, and it was right back to pounding the zone in his past two starts, including a five-inning, one-hit gem, with five strikeouts, in GJ's 7-0 win over Orem last Friday night.
His velocity, which was in the mid-90s at Texas A&M, is climbing again, with his fastball sitting at 90, 91 mph. Like the rehab milestones, he's not concerned about how hard he's throwing.
"That's hard to work on at this point," he said. "There's a bunch of different arguments. Everyone has their secrets of pitching well, but what it comes down to is making good pitches and you don't need velocity for that. The people who know what they're talking about say that won't come back until 16 months post-op, but if that's your worry, you're not thinking about the right things."
Opitz likes that the velocity is returning, but, like Kilkenny, knows that's the goal for the offseason and into his second year on the field. It's the control of his four pitches (and he's working on a fifth, a sinker) and his mound presence the Rockies' second-year manager looks for.
"For me it's more the eye test, looking in their eyes, looking in their face, the expression, are they favoring one thing or another, how are they bouncing back?" Opitz said of managing a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery.
"Today (the day after a start) is a big day, is he stiff, tight? He said he felt great. As far as the training staff, they're doing more in-depth with the milestones and where they need to get to. We're not going to push him at any point this year, just get him some work, and he's looked great so far."
Kilkenny didn't let a lengthy inning, which included an injury delay, keep him from getting in his innings against Rocky Mountain.
Opitz checked in during the delay, and Kilkenny told him he was good to go. He was telling the truth — he retired the Vibes in order, with a pair of strikeouts.
"I've never been the cautious type, and they know that," Kilkenny said. "But they trusted me to be true to my word and go out and compete just like I have. It's what got me here. I guess they trust me with that and that's fantastic. After a year of being babied, for good reason, the last thing I wanted to do was sit out for just a three-inning start."
With the surgery and rehab behind him, Kilkenny's only focus is to continue to pitch well so the Rockies can keep winning. That kind of focus got him through the rehab.
"What I tell everyone about the rehab process is if you stay focused on doing what you need to do and have to do, the days were very long, but the year flew by," he said. "It's one of those things, once you have a vision, you stick to it and you don't let anyone distract you from it."