What will Cohen Achen do for an encore?
The Calgary-born pitcher enters his sophomore season with some high expectations after putting on a show for the Lindsey Wilson College Blue Raiders this past spring.
After starting the season in the bullpen, Achen moved into a starter’s role, posting a final record of 5-0 with a 2.38 earned-run average. He also struck out 54 batters in just over 64 innings of work, as he was named the Mid-South Conference Freshman of the Year and Second Team All Mid-South Conference.
“Going into it, I wasn’t expecting a huge season like this,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “Getting those awards and being acknowledged by everyone who is a part of the league is really special to me.”
It wasn’t just the change in role that made the accomplishments that much sweeter, as Achen also had to battle through the recuperation of a major injury plus some unknowns around where he would be playing baseball in the first place.
In the blink of an eye, it appeared like Achen’s baseball career was going to be put on hold for a while.
Getting his second start of the season for Big Bend College on March 8, 2020, the freshman was rolling against the Pierce College Raiders.
Through three innings, he had allowed just three hits and struck out four batters in what had turned into a pitcher’s duel.
Leading off the fourth, Achen remembers throwing a “sinker that broke right down the middle.”
“He hit a 95 mile-an-hour ball right off the right side of my head,” Achen said. “That one completely knocked me out.”
He recalls waking up to see coaches, trainers and players circled around him, asking if he was alright.
“I woke up with some blood coming out of my ear,” Achen continued. “I stood up, walked to the stretcher, and was sent to the hospital.”
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
Even though he was able to stand on his own, Achen wasn’t out of the woods yet as he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and a slight brain bleed.
While he admits to being “kind of scared” with how bad it could have been, he believes the ball actually hit him in just the right spot.
“I was very lucky though because it missed my temple, it missed my jaw, and it missed my ear and my eye,” Achen told CTV Calgary. “So it hit just the skull part right in between all four of them.”
The young right-hander was let out of hospital that same day, but was back the next after throwing up a few times.
“I definitely had a concussion after that one,” Achen laughed.
Just one week later, the world ground to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Achen was sent home to recover from his injuries, which also included about three months of vertigo. That time in bed reinforced something inside of him.
“I don’t want to sound crazy, but it made me fall in love with the game even more – if that makes sense,” he said. “When I wasn’t able to play during the three months of recovery, it made me realize just how much I missed playing baseball and how much I loved playing it.”
Once he was given the all-clear to throw a baseball again, Achen also faced the daunting task of not only dealing with the physical hurdles, but the mental as well.
“I had to let myself know that that happening again is super, super rare,” he said. “Having it happen the first time is even more rare – like lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.”
While his injuries healed, Achen looked forward to heading back to Big Bend in the fall. Unfortunately, the pandemic had other ideas.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound hurler was told he wasn’t able to cross the border.
“It was a little crazy,” Achen said. “Just a complete switch of things. I didn’t have a school to go to and I had nothing going on, so I had to figure all that stuff out.”
Luckily, it didn’t take long for him to find a new collegiate home at Lindsey Wilson, but then it was a matter of getting back into game-shape both mentally and physically.
“I do like that I came in as a reliever, as it gave me a little more time to get used to being back on the mound – even if it was just for a quick inning or two here and there,” Achen said. “Just having that made me a lot more comfortable as I slowly progressed into pitching again.”
Achen was thrown one more curveball before he was able to hit the field with the Blue Vikings.
In January 2021, assistant coach Ethan Utley was named head coach at Union College. Utley was a graduate and former pitcher with Lindsey Wilson, which led to some questions heading into the spring about who would take the reigns.
For Achen, he leaned on the things he learned from Donovan Feenstra at Calgary Pitching HQ.
“I learned a lot in the offseason with him,” Achen said. “He taught me a lot about driveline, recovery, and setting up my days as a starter and as a pitcher, what I was expected to do in the gym and to have a routine.”
Feenstra, a fellow Calgarian who spent three years in professional baseball, has been impressed with how far Achen has come.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I have met, and he always wants to get better,” Feenstra told Alberta Dugout Stories. “After the face injury, coming back and training, then getting the opportunity to go to a great baseball school in a really tough conference, and going from a reliever to starting the first game of the conference tournament – it was incredible.”
BACK FOR MORE
Not only was Achen busy working on his own mechanics ahead of reporting back at Lindsey Wilson, he was also paying it forward as a coach.
Achen, who is a product of the Babe Ruth Calgary system, returned to help coach the River Cats to a championship.
His main message to the players: “stay positive and use the negatives to your advantage.”
When it comes to his own game, Feenstra says Achen has already added some velocity to his average fastball, and is seeing an improvement in the quality of his off-speed pitches.
“Cohen has professional baseball dreams, and I truly believe he has the potential to do it,” Feenstra said. “It’s a lot of work, but he has the work ethic, attitude and athletic ability to do it. I’m looking forward for what he will look like when he comes back next summer.”
While a lot of work remains ahead, Achen can look at fellow Calgary pitchers like Chris Reitsma and Mike Soroka as sources of inspiration to get him to the next level.
While his scars have healed, he hopes his experience can also inspire young athletes to keep pursuing their dreams despite the hurdles that may come their way.
“Definitely just work as hard as you can, especially at a young age,” Achen said. “Always have a goal in mind and think one step ahead.”