‘Head on straight’: Lefty Ian Krol ready to restart his career with Tigers

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
 
| The Detroit News

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Lakeland, Fla. — Epiphany is a just a word, until you have one. Demons are what other people fight. Rock bottom is just a vague concept until you hit it. And redemption? That’s a road you can’t even find until you are on it.

Ian Krol understands this now. All of it. And the road to redemption, who knew, runs along Florida State Road 33 in Lakeland. Krol, a left-handed reliever who pitched for the Tigers in 2014 and 2015 but has thrown exactly two big-league innings since 2017, is back as a non-roster invitee.

“I really didn’t think anything was going to happen,” Krol said Monday in a phone interview with The News. “But Al (Avila, general manager) made it happen. I am super pumped to be back.”

It’s been a hellish journey. After two productive seasons with the Braves, throwing 100 innings in 114 appearances in 2016 and 2017, Krol bounced around to four different organizations (Angles, Mets, Reds, Twins), serving a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy in 2019.

“Good things are ahead,” he said. “I did a lot of work on myself. Trying to stay positive. I’ve pretty much seen everything and been through everything.”

About that rock-bottom moment and the epiphany.

There he was last summer, 29 years old, a veteran of six big-league seasons, technically still in the prime of his career, driving 50 miles from downtown Chicago to Joliet, Illinois, to play in a four-team, quasi, makeshift independent league on a team called Nerds Herd.

If that doesn’t make you start examining your choices, nothing will.

“I didn’t think I’d ever play independent ball — if you can even call that independent ball,” Krol said. “It was a men’s league in Joliet. That really humbled everything for me.”

Actually, the true humbling came a couple of years earlier. He’d earned a call-up from the Angels in 2018 and threw two scoreless innings against the Yankees in his first, and only, game. He flew with the team from New York to Detroit, but before he could even get to Comerica Park and visit his old friends, he was designated for assignment.

In 2019, with the Mets and Reds, he was stuck in Triple A, trying to pitch through nagging pain in his elbow, which turned out to be bone spurs.

“I was trying to work that out, just not feeling good and I was frustrated,” Krol said. “Also I wasn’t going anywhere (professionally). Everywhere I went I was getting jammed up by other lefties. And I wasn’t pitching great in Triple A.

“All that kind of down-spiraled into the positive tests. After that I straightened out and got to work.”

Pot showed up twice on Krol’s minor-league drug tests while he was with the Twins. It wasn’t his first infraction. He’d been suspended for behavioral issues while in Class A in the Athletics system. And he’d gotten kicked off his high school baseball team his senior year for drinking. He’d helped Neuqua Valley High win a state championship as a sophomore — winning the title on the same field he pitched on last summer with the Nerds.

How’s that for bringing it all full circle?

“Yeah, baseball was taken away from me earlier in my career, but I didn’t appreciate it as much,” Krol said. “I was younger. As we get older, we start to figure out what we want in life. I know now this is right for me. I don’t think there is anything else. Baseball is my path.”

He had a lot of time to soul-search, self-castigate and rejuvenate on those long drives last summer. He didn’t have to do it alone, either. His family was there to support him, as always, and also his fiancé — Athina.

“I just re-evaluated myself,” he said. “I found a girl, settled down. We’re getting married in November. A lot of things just came to the light for me. I was getting older. This is really what I want to do. I can’t take it for granted anymore. You are redeemed by being responsible.

“I just looked in the mirror and told myself, ‘Do you want to play baseball? Because if you do want to play baseball, then pull your head out of your butt.’ That’s the one thing that kept me motivated.”

Not for nothing, Krol dominated that men’s league in Joliet. Managed by longtime back-up big league catcher Corky Miller, Krol allowed one run and struck out 31 in 19.1 innings.

His fastball velocity is still ranging between 93 and 95 mph. He still has that nasty cutter to bail him out in hitter-friendly counts. He still throws a change-up to keep right-handed hitters honest. But what he hopes can be a difference-maker this time around is a curveball.

“I used to be pretty much a two-pitch pitcher,” he said. “But the game has changed and a lot of hitters don’t look out and in as much. They look up and down. So I’ve been developing a sharper-breaking curve, a knuckle-curve.

“I’m mainly focusing on that right now, trying to tunnel the curveball off the fastball. With the fastball up in the zone and the curveball down in the zone.”

Entering his age-30 season, Krol has got a pretty fierce fight ahead of him, at least in terms of winning a roster spot out of spring training. His fate, just like with other left-handed non-roster invitees Derek Holland, Robbie Ross and Miguel Del Pozo, is tied somewhat to lefties Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander. Both are competing for rotation spots, but if they don’t win one, they will be back in the bullpen.

But, as Krol knows, the season is long and there will be innings restrictions on most, if not all, starting pitchers. Even if he starts at Triple-A Toledo, there will be big-league innings available as the season goes on.

“I’m stoked, believe me,” Krol said. “I’m older. I’ve seen a lot more. I’m recognizing swings. There’s a lot more to my game now than there was when I was younger. I’ve always had the stuff to pitch at the big-league level. It’s just been keeping my head on straight and keeping myself out of trouble.

“We’re past that now.”

Krol has yet to see the rebuilt clubhouse and weight room facility at TigerTown. He tried to get in on Thursday to put his gear in a locker, but he got turned away. Inauspicious start, for sure.

“I hadn’t done my COVID stuff yet,” he said, laughing. “I got it done now, so I’ll be ready. I have not pitched off a dirt mound, dude, in like two years. All the mounds up north were turf mounds. I can’t wait to pitch off dirt again. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m most excited about right now.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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