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Ryan Kalish a new man with Cubs after spinal fusion

Updated: March 19, 2014 7:20PM



MESA, Ariz. — Ryan Kalish can explain his surgery in jock shorthand now: He got the Peyton Manning.

Maybe that’s simpler than getting into the gory details — that last August, a doctor cut his neck open, removed part of his disc, put part of his hipbone in his neck and added two screws on top, two on the bottom and a metal plate in the middle.

By the time Kalish decided to have spinal-fusion surgery, the former Red Sox prospect already had made peace with his baseball career, however it ended up. In a way, that made the decision easier.

Kalish needed surgery on his left shoulder after diving for a ball in 2011, then surgery on his right shoulder a year later. He had two neck procedures, the fusion when the tingling and burning wouldn’t stop.

‘‘The way I was feeling,’’ the Cubs outfielder said Tuesday, ‘‘I needed something to just believe in again.’’

Consider it a success: Entering Tuesday night’s spring game against the Texas Rangers, Kalish was hitting .300 in 20 plate appearances. His five steals were tied for fifth-most in the Cactus League.

His first full spring training in three years got longer, too, after he survived cuts that optioned outfielders Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters to Class AAA on Tuesday.

That Kalish is a contender for the Cubs’ fifth outfield job is impressive, considering his last at-bat before this spring was in August 2012.

‘‘I’m trying to get back to that natural state of playing the game,’’ he said. ‘‘Outfield, I feel comfortable at all three [spots]. Stealing bases. And the swing — as the spring goes on, is actually getting more natural. The pitches are slowing down.

“After two years off, man, those first couple weeks, those pitches were looking mighty hard. It’s definitely getting back to the natural state I want it to be in.’’

The five-tool talent is there. Kalish was ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 after the 2007 season. He got 163 at-bats with the 2010 Red Sox — at age 22 — and returned for 96 more in 2012.

‘‘At this point, man, I’m trying to not be a prospect anymore,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m trying to be an every-day major-league player.’’

Cubs team president Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager, called Kalish after he became a free agent. Kalish said Epstein cares for him — ‘‘It’s not just about throwing a piece of meat out on the field and seeing what you can do,’’ he said — but he also knew the Cubs would be a good fit.

‘‘Fresh perspective is really key,’’ Kalish said. ‘‘There’s opportunity. There’s opportunity to be a leader. There’s opportunity to be a legend.’’

Cubs manager Rick Renteria knows from experience how an injury can change a player’s perspective.

‘‘When you get your opportunity, you enjoy it, and you really do relish it,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘And I think you bear down; all the little things just kinda come. You start recognizing things you should be doing. I certainly think he’s been taking advantage of the opportunity he has right now.”

Kalish certainly appreciates it.

‘‘The spring has been awesome, man,’’ he said. ‘‘I keep saying to people, ‘I’m just happy to play.’ ’’

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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