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Carter Kieboom, rehabbing in Florida, is eager to get back on track

Carter Kieboom did not expect to spend his summer in West Palm Beach, Fla., rehabbing from elbow surgery. But that's exactly what he's doing. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

How Carter Kieboom expected to spend this spring and summer: winning the third base job, improving his defense, finally establishing himself as a key part of the Washington Nationals’ future — or a part at all — after doubt followed him like a shadow in recent seasons.

How the 24-year-old has spent this spring and summer: relearning to open a door with his right hand, then brush his teeth, then touch his shoulder when his range of motion allowed.

Tommy John surgery changes everything. Kieboom is learning by the day.

“When I first got hurt, I thought, ‘Well, that was my chance,’ ” Kieboom said in a phone interview last week. “Obviously, I knew this was a huge year for me. So my initial feeling is that it was horrible, that I could be done for the season and never get this opportunity again. It took maybe 48 hours before I remembered that I’m still young and getting started. It was a speed bump that seemed huge in the moment, but you have to look at the big picture.”

A first-round pick in 2016, Kieboom has struggled in limited chances with the Nationals. He debuted in 2019 and was sent down after 11 games. In 2020, after Anthony Rendon departed in free agency, Kieboom couldn’t grab the everyday role. And in 2021, given another crack in spring training, Kieboom was sent down to start the season, was promoted midsummer and finished with a .207 batting average, a .301 on-base percentage and a .318 slugging percentage in 249 plate appearances.

Still, the first full season of a rebuild was a prime opportunity for Kieboom. The Nationals wanted him to play through growing pains. The pressure would be low. For insurance, they signed Maikel Franco to a minor league deal during the lockout. Then at the start of camp, Kieboom had lingering elbow soreness, leading the medical staff to diagnose a strained flexor mass. The plan was to rehab and try to avoid surgery.

But at every step, the pain returned. Kieboom underwent Tommy John surgery in late May. Franco has started at third in 79 of the Nationals’ 88 games.

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“No one wants to have season-ending surgery if they can help it,” Kieboom said. “But it got to a point where I couldn’t keep trying to rehab something that clearly wasn’t right. I couldn’t miss two seasons. When was enough enough, you know? Trying to figure that out and then be at peace with the decision was one of the bigger mental challenges I’ve faced.”

Recounting his recovery, Kieboom laughed about the mundane tasks that now feel like huge victories. This past Friday was the six-week mark, meaning he no longer has to wear a brace. Living near the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., he goes on long walks to stay in shape. He expects to start throwing and hitting in October. He has no problem saying he’ll be ready next spring, when he could be greeted by another shot to stick.

What he’s battling, though, is loneliness. He typically arrives in the morning to an empty clubhouse. Those playing for the Nationals’ Florida Complex League team are all on the minor league side. And after watching the first 50 games of the season, give or take, Kieboom is picking and choosing more.

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He always checks the box scores. He is glued to any National League East matchup, figuring he’s likely to face some of those pitchers in the future. But catching every inning took a toll. TV on or not, there’s a great physical and metaphorical distance between Kieboom and his teammates, the ones trudging through a season that could end with more than 100 losses. Kieboom knows only time can close it.

“Baseball is not all I have ... but it is all I’ve ever really worked for,” he said. “I thought this was the year my career was going to get on track. Now that was delayed, and it’s okay. I mean, it has to be okay. I’m still so far from being finished.”