Tanner Cantrell stepped into the batter’s box 77 times this season. Each one of those at-bats carried new significance for the Houston High School junior after a medical scare last fall left him battling to save his life, his leg and eventually the sport he loved.

“I felt pretty privileged to even be able to swing a bat anymore,” Cantrell said.

It’s impossible to notice anything physically wrong with the HHS third baseman. He isn’t like the other players on the field. He’s better. He batted a blistering .591 this season to establish a new program record for the Tigers en route to what should be another all-state selection.

But just a few months earlier, even playing baseball was in doubt.

It was Labor Day weekend 2013. Cantrell, who was 16, drove to Springfield to practice with his summer league team, the Midwest Nationals. Cantrell, who said he didn’t feel right when he woke up, was having trouble bending down to field ground balls. About 15 balls in, he couldn’t get down at all.

“I could look at my legs, and one was abnormally larger than the other one,” Cantrell said. “It felt really heavy when I was walking.”

Cantrell’s coach, Eric Briggs, also noticed his right leg was bigger than the left. Briggs called Cantrell’s mother, Stacy, and suggested she drive to Springfield and take her son to the hospital.

An ultrasound at Mercy Hospital revealed Cantrell had a blood clot in his leg, which was now six inches larger than the left one. He was rushed to ICU and immediately placed on blood thinners. Further testing showed Cantrell had a congenital defect in his inferior vena cava –– the large vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body into the right atrium of the heart. Cantrell’s blood flowed at five percent the normal rate through his vein.

Doctors told the Cantrells a perfect storm –– a foul ball off Tanner’s foot a week earlier, extreme temperatures that may have caused dehydration and the car ride to Springfield where his leg sat stationary for 1 1/2 hours –– likely caused the blood clot.

“They explained it kind of like a road,” Stacy said. “If the road is closed, roads develop around it. The blood just flowed around it, and that’s how his body had worked all this time.”

Doctors cleaned out Cantrell’s clot on two occassions with procedures through the back of his knee. The clot returned four days later.

During a light conversation with a nurse, Cantrell was dealt a difficult reality about his future.

“She asked me if I played football, and I told her, ‘No, I play baseball,’” Cantrell recalled. “She said, ‘Nothing is for sure, but at this rate you’re not going to be able to play baseball again.’”

With no solution at hand, Stacy and her husband, Brian, requested a transfer to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

“At that point we were wondering if he was going to be able to keep his leg,” Stacy said. “We wanted to keep him alive, and we also wanted to keep his leg.”

Cantrell’s new doctors gave him blood transfusions of frozen plasma mixed with medicine to counteract his metabolism. After two days of checking his leg for a pulse every 30 minutes, Cantrell showed signs of improvement. The clot loosened and his leg decreased in size.

Cantrell, who lost 25 pounds while hospitalized, was released after 12 total days in Springfield and St. Louis. He returned home on crutches and slowly progressed to walking.

With returning to baseball on his mind, Cantrell began light jogging two months after his discharge and was lifting weights with his upper body around three months. He also progressed to swinging a bat.

“Having such a competitive nature probably had a lot to do with him coming back like he did,” Stacy said. “He was very determined and willing to fight extra hard to get back.”

Cantrell was back on the field March 24 when Houston faced Salem in the 2014 season opener. He had three hits and four RBIs in the Tigers’ 16-4 victory.

Cantrell’s right leg remains one inch bigger than the left. He gave himself a shot in the stomach twice daily before switching to pills two weeks ago, and he will take blood thinners the rest of his life.

Besides those changes and a restriction from contact sports, things have returned to normal for Cantrell. Everything except his outlook on life.

“I felt great to be out there. God did a good thing for me by letting me come back out,” Cantrell said.

“The saying, ‘Play every game like it will be the last one’ never hit me until going through this.”

The saying, ‘Play every game like it will be the last one’ never hit me until going through this.”

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