Mark Appel, once considered the biggest disappointment in MLB draft history, is headed to the minor league camp of the Philadelphia Phillies, ready to return after last pitching in a game in 2017.

Appel, 29, spoke to reporters Monday from a hotel room in Florida where he is waiting in quarantine for the camp to open later this week. If you don’t count active minor leaguers, Appel is one of three No. 1 pitchers who have never reached the majors, the others being Steve Chilcott and Brian Taylor.

Appel is ready to chase this dream again.

I think it ate at me when I was playing, much more than it has since, he said. I think I’ve come to terms with who I am, what’s happened in my life, what’s happened in my career, and I still really enjoy where I’m going. … I’m here because I play for the love of the game.

Appel’s return to baseball actually began in 2018, shortly after he left the sport indefinitely.

It started at a baseball game. Appel, the first pick in the 2013 draft, was at the Oakland A’s game to meet his former roommate from Stanford, A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty.

At first I wasn’t sure how I would feel at a baseball game, I felt drained and exhausted, but I loved it, Appel said. I realized that I still loved the game and had no bitterness, resentment or regrets about what had happened in my career.

I’m here because I play for the love of the game, said Mark Appel, former first-round pick, who wanted to return three years after he quit baseball. Chris O’Meara.

Appel, one of the most decorated pitchers in NCAA history, was picked eighth by the Pirates in 2012, but returned to Stanford for his senior season and was picked first by the Astros in 2013, one spot ahead of Chris Bryant. His professional career has gotten off to an inconsistent start, including a 6.91 ERA at two levels in 2014. He had his best season with the Astros in 2015, when he posted a 4.37 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, but the Astros picked him up in a trade that allowed them to acquire closer Ken Giles in the offseason.

In his two seasons with the Phillies, he was never good. He made just eight starts in 2016 and was diagnosed with a partial tear of his labrum and rotator cuff. He tried to rehab without surgery, but has only had 17 since 2017.

The last few years I played, it felt like it was a matter of survival, Appel said. How do you get over the next beginning and move on to the next? It wasn’t good. Every time I dropped it, it hurt.

On 1. In February 2018, Appel announced he was retiring from the game. But when he went to those games to see his friend play, he realized that the gaming bug had never really left him. He knew that the process starts with a healthy lifestyle.

Toward the end of the 2018 season, I started wondering what I would need to play again, he said. It seemed like I still had the desire and just wanted to figure out how to get better, so I started seeing doctors.

He eventually underwent shoulder surgery in October 2018 and has been rehabbing ever since, including several stints at Driveline Baseball Academy outside of Seattle. He contacted the Phillies in November. He threw a few bullpens to get ready for camp, and although he said he was probably behind most pitchers at the time, Appel said he hit 95 mph while probably sitting at 92.

I don’t expect to be completely dominant and feel like I did when I played my best games in college and even a few good games in professional baseball, he said. It’s been three and a half years since I’ve faced baseball players, so I’m trying to give myself a learning curve to get back into baseball.

Appel said he wants to be a starter, but will do what the Phillies ask of him. His goal now is to keep improving.

Can I get into the big leagues if I do well? Of course, once you’re back in the system, anything can happen.

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