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Noah Song battling conflicting feelings, lost muscle memory in his return to baseball with the Phillies

Noah Song threw occasionally, but infrequently, and only on flat ground, while serving in the Navy from 2020-22. Given clearance to return to baseball in February, he's been shut down with what the Phillies described as back tightness.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Noah Song’s time with the Red Sox in 2019 was brief, but made a lasting impression.

The righthander — a first-round talent from the Naval Academy who fell to the fourth over questions about whether his military responsibilities would prevent him from pitching professionally — emerged quickly as the best pitching prospect in the Sox system while pitching for the Lowell Spinners. He showed a four-pitch mix and command that made it easy to project a major league starter.

But when he wasn’t granted a waiver by the Navy after pitching in an international tournament, Song enrolled in flight school in the summer of 2020. For two and a half years, the Sox maintained some contact, as well as hope that Song might one day be granted permission to pitch in their system.


‘“I try to respect the fact that there were people working at baseball the whole time I was working on something else. It’s not something that necessarily I feel too comfortable about in the sense of, I know that I’m not ready.”’

Noah Song, who returned to professional baseball in February after two and a half years in the Navy

Yet over time, Song started to doubt that he would ever pitch again — or be able to pitch well. He didn’t rule out the possibility, mindful that another Navy graduate, Mitch Harris, reached the big leagues despite missing five years for his military service. Still, Song loved his aviation training and recognized that time away from the mound — he threw occasionally but infrequently, and only on flat ground — was tilting the odds.

“Every year that passed that I was away from the game, I think it became more and more kind of like, ‘OK, there’s less chance of it coming back or happening, or even if I do go back, there’s less chance of success,’ ” said Song. “But at the same time, it’s not something that I ever wanted to give up on.”

Nor did the Sox. But then, the Phillies selected Song in the Rule 5 draft last December — essentially, a $100,000 gamble that if Song was cleared by the military to pitch, he could be kept on the major league roster for a season. Red Sox VP of baseball operations Ben Crockett reached out.


Song is with the Phillies now, but will he end up staying there?David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“He was like, ‘We wish you the best.’ It was a pretty somber tone. It was kind of a sad day there,” recalled Song. “Shortly after, obviously [Phillies GM Sam Fuld and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski] called and said, ‘Hey, we Rule 5′d you and welcome to the organization.’ It was I guess a really bittersweet thing.”

Song received clearance from the Navy to join the Phillies — while serving in the reserves — in late February, resulting in a rapid and unexpected redirection from an expected deployment to Japan. He’s now in Clearwater, simultaneously taking part in both his first professional baseball spring training and his first big league spring training.

The return to the mound has not exactly been an exercise in riding a bike.

“I could feel that I still was nowhere close to what I was, but I didn’t feel like I was completely starting fresh either. But I did know that there was gonna be a lot of work as far as getting back into throwing shape,” said Song. “Any part of pitching, I feel like I was struggling. The off-speed command, just throwing off-speed in general, even down to just the grips, some of that felt uncomfortable. Even the fastball grip.

“The whole delivery, everything just kind of felt forced, I guess, a little bit. It just was not very fluid,” he added. “It’s almost like the brain needs to make the connection with the body again. It’s just been a very long time.”


Song’s deliberate progress to regain his feel for pitching was recently interrupted. He was shut down with what the Phillies described as back tightness. He has yet to face hitters, and on Sunday, Dombrowski informed reporters that the pitcher — unsurprisingly — will open the year on the injured list.

For the Phillies to retain Song’s rights, he’d have to remain on their active roster for at least 90 days during the regular season. If that doesn’t happen, he’d be placed on waivers and, if unclaimed, offered back to the Sox.

“I’m not oblivious to the fact. I know that there’s a possibility that I can be returned to Boston,” said Song. “But to be honest, I try not to look into the details of it because, one, I don’t want to get caught up in trying to plan out my own future when it’s really outside my control. And then secondly, to me, it just doesn’t really matter, because my goal is to come here and try to get better at throwing every day. It’s not to try to worry about the rules of the Rule 5 draft.”

Still, Song is mindful of the uniqueness of his position — both as it pertains to baseball and the Navy. He expresses a sense of discomfort with being apart from the fellow squadron members who are deployed abroad.


“That was a little bit of hesitation that I had coming back because I was like, ‘All my friends are going overseas and I’m going to have to live with that,’ ” said Song. “They’re well trained and you hope nothing happens, but at the same time, you know there’s risk involved and you’re supposed to be in that situation.”

Song talks with bench coach Mike Calitri at spring training late last month.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Meanwhile, he’s also aware some of his former Spinners teammates are still trying to find their footing in the lower rungs of professional baseball. Song, meanwhile, is in big league camp with the possibility that, despite three and a half years of not pitching in games, he has a shot at proceeding almost directly to the majors.

“I definitely take that very seriously, and I try to respect the fact that there were people working at baseball the whole time I was working on something else. It’s not something that necessarily I feel too comfortable about in the sense of, I know that I’m not ready,” said Song. “I hope that people understand that I am trying to progress no matter what happens. I’m really OK with however it turns out, even if it means I’m not on a big-league roster. I’m trying to come back into baseball.”

In the summer of 2019, Song spoke of having two Plan A’s — baseball and the Navy — he hoped to pursue simultaneously. After years of doubting whether that would be possible, he appreciates the opportunity in front of him.


“If I’m not going to be in the Navy, this is the only thing I’d want to do. It’s super exciting,” said Song. “This is the highest opportunity that you can have in this organization. I try not to take that for granted.”

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.