He was coming off of a solid regular season, then came here to the Arizona Fall League and was virtually unhittable out of the Scottsdale Scorpions' bullpen. That got him to the big leagues with the Nationals in 2011, but that's when this promising story turned in a bad direction. Kimball hurt his shoulder and needed rotator cuff surgery.
The road back would be long and uncertain, with shoulders always a tricky thing. But Kimball decided he wouldn't be outworked and, despite some setbacks, made it back to the mound here in the AFL. That perseverance, along with his overall leadership abilities while with the Salt River Rafters, is the reason he was named the 2012 Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award winner prior to his Rafters taking on the Peoria Javelinas in the championship game at Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday.
"It means a lot, it does," Kimball said of winning the award. "Hard work does pay off. Next year, I'm going to come out, do what I always do -- bust my butt and hopefully help the club. The award is icing on the cake, and playing in the championship is even more icing."
Kimball was one of six nominees for the award, joining Mike O'Neill of the Cardinals, Nate Freiman of the Cardinals, the Braves' Nick Ahmed, the Yankees' David Adams and Tyler Clark of the Tigers as finalists for the award.
Created in memory of the late Cincinnati Reds outfield prospect who was killed during the 2003 Arizona Fall League season, the award has been given annually since '04 to the player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership. The six candidates this year were chosen for those qualities -- which Stenson brought to the ballpark every day -- rather than their statistics or on-field performances. Each has a hard-nosed attitude, does his job without complaint and plays the game the way it was meant to be played.
Kimball was not selected because of his numbers -- he finished with a 4.80 ERA over 15 innings of work -- but rather for how hard he continued to work to get back to where he was pre-injury.
"It was a long year for me coming off the surgery," Kimball said. "It means a lot to me that people noticed I worked hard all year. There are a lot of guys who worked hard out here, especially on my team. It means a lot to win the award ahead of all the other guys who were up for the award."
After having surgery in July of 2011, Kimball began throwing this past June, working his way back to a rehab assignment. He was moving up, earning a trip to Double-A Harrisburg, when a torn lat muscle forced him to the sidelines again. He began throwing again in August, threw in instructs and has made it through the AFL unscathed.
"I feel like I have a brand new arm," Kimball said. "I didn't get my usual long toss program during the offseason, so I'm kind of building arm strength while pitching in games now.
"Just to be able to pitch 14 months out, now that I'm throwing the way I'm throwing, it's getting closer and closer to where I was two years ago. It's a big step for me just to come out and feel healthy every day."
"Everybody has their own story, but Cole's is a little different than most," Salt River manager Matt Williams said. "The thing we appreciate about Cole is his ability to be a teammate. To a lot of guys who haven't been where he's been, he's been a great leader for us, for the Fall League.
"We're happy for him that he could represent that award. We've told him with that award, it creates a lot of responsibility moving forward. He's going to carry that legacy, hopefully to the big leagues, and have a long career."