* LHP Shane Dawson (Drayton Valley, Alta.) is back with the class-A Lansing Lugnuts after playing through pain last year. Dawson was 3-5 with a 3.38 ERA in 14 games -- making 10 starts -- for the Lugnuts. Photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ....
By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
LANSING, Mich. – Shane Dawson has a chip on his shoulder.
There have been plenty of times when the Toronto Blue Jays minor-league left-hander was told that he wouldn’t be able to do something, but there have been even more times that he’s been able to enjoy the feeling of proving his doubters wrong.
The 21-year-old’s determination and grit are huge factors in the success he’s had, on the mound and off, but he has also found their limitations, occasionally pushing him too far and beyond the edge of what might be best in the long run.
Last season with Toronto’s Midwest League affiliate Lansing Lugnuts, Dawson’s competitive nature and desire to be out on the field were detrimental to both his health and his development as a young player, an experience he has learned a lot from. Early in the year, the southpaw began feeling discomfort in his pitching elbow. Fearing that he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery – a procedure that would have taken him off the mound for at least a year – he kept it to himself and played through it.
“I thought that was it,” he said. “My mindset at that point was that [surgery] was going to happen and there’s nothing they can do to stop it, so I’m just not going to tell anybody. And that was pretty idiotic of me because a whole bunch of other things could have gone wrong. Luckily for me, it was only a sprain [of the ulnar collateral ligament] but I’ve got to be a little more careful.”
Dawson’s sprain was the end result of a literal chip on his shoulder. After winning a Northwest League championship with the Vancouver Canadians two seasons ago, a significant abnormality in the Albertan’s throwing shoulder was discovered during a physical. He was missing his infraspinatus muscle, the one that should have been right in the middle of his shoulder blade.
“It was my fourth start in Vancouver when I knew [there was a problem],” Dawson said. “I did awful. I got shelled and then that night I couldn’t even hold my arm straight. It was shaking and I had horrible elbow pains. I told the coaches, so I got an MRI but there was no tear.
“There was nothing wrong in my elbow and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. So I took the two weeks off after the championship and went down to Florida, and during the physical they noticed a big hole in my back … There’s no muscle there so it’s right down to the bone.”
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefty can’t explain what happened or pinpoint when it started, but he knows that in order to keep up, now he has to work twice as hard.
“It could have been a number of things,” Dawson said. “It could have been overuse. Sometimes the nerve that sends signals to the muscle gets trapped in between a ligament and the bone and just shuts off. It could have been the way I was getting treated – maybe they hit a pressure point and it turned off. It could have been a lot of things …
“Everything is good now but I’ve got to really stay on top of the shoulder muscles there. And for the rest of my career, I’m probably going to have to do more shoulder exercises than everyone else here but that’s part of the game.”
As Dawson has battled through his injury woes, his gamer mindset has been a double-edged sword.
While his mental strength has helped him, it also might have pushed him further physically than he should have gone.
“I was always taught that once the game gets going you don’t worry about anything else except getting that guy out or winning the game,” he said. “So I would never feel my arm during the game or any other injuries, but as soon as I step off the field my arm is aching or my knee is hurting, but the mental toughness is a big part of my game …
“I’ve had some coaches tell me to tone [my intensity] down throughout the past couple of years, in practice definitely and sometimes in games. But that competitiveness and aggressiveness really gives me an edge in certain situations. With bases loaded, no outs, in a tie game, I have that edge over people because I’m so competitive and I want to win so bad.”
And then of course, there’s the physical aspect to what Dawson would agree could be considered a “hockey mentality” after playing Canada’s favourite pastime for a couple of years and even suiting up as a goalie for one.
“Growing up, my dad [also named Shane] would hit me ground balls,” he said. “Or playing games, if my dad was there, he would get mad if you moved out of the way, even if it’s a liner right at your head. You try to catch it or you knock it down, and throw him out. It doesn’t matter if it hurts. It hurts for a minute or two minutes and that’s it. Just knock it down and throw him out – it doesn’t have to be pretty.”
There are certainly times that his attitude has been detrimental.
“Sometimes being overaggressive is an issue,” Dawson said. “Sometimes you’re too aggressive in the strike zone and give them too much to hit, or sometimes you get the other team fired up by your mannerisms and your aggressiveness.
“For the most part it’s been very beneficial in my game but there are games where it’s turned on me, and that’s something I have to work on.”
In his attempt to improve the mental side of his game, Dawson is trying to enjoy more of his time on the field and “not be so intense all the time,” though he is still figuring out just how to do that.
“Is it fun? I don’t really know,” he said. “I just focus when I’m out there and I’ve got a job to do. But after, if we win I have fun. And if I do well I have fun.”
In a less-than-ideal season with the Lugnuts last year – the same squad Dawson will start the upcoming season with – the then-injured pitcher still posted a 3.38 ERA over 14 games and 56 innings. That brought his career totals to a 3.05 mark over 35 games and 132 2/3 frames since being selected in the 17th round of the 2012 draft out of Lethbridge Community College by Jamie Lehman and the Blue Jays.
In Lansing, his 3.9 walks per nine innings were well above the 1.9 and 2.0 marks he posted in Vancouver and Bluefield the previous year, and his 7.4 strikeouts per nine were far below the 12.5 and 11.5 he put up over 46 innings between the Canadians and Bluefield Blue Jays.
“I’m most excited about proving myself,” Dawson said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove this year, just like I do every year. You’ve always got to pitch like there’s a chip on your shoulder … I just want to do whatever I can to get out of here as fast as I can. I know what I have to do to get out of this league – pitch to my capabilities.”
Back in the same place he found himself last April, the native of Drayton Valley, Alta., is ready for a fresh start and is looking forward to moving on.
“My career has had its ups and downs,” he said. “Last year I was not the same pitcher. I was dealing with my elbow the whole time. I feel like if I stay healthy and my arm feels good, I can go a long way.”