You always remember your first time at Wrigley Field.
Go through the doors and down the dark hall. See the green grass and ivy-covered bleacher walls as you enter the playing field. Glancing up at the old-school scoreboard and watching the seats fill up in the hours leading up to the game, the The anticipation grows until the first throw.
Caleb Kilian lived through that Saturday afternoon — then he made his major league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 31,673 fans.
It was, he later said, “the happiest day of my life”.
There are sure to be plenty of bright days ahead for the 25-year-old rookie, who was returned as an option to Triple-A Iowa on Sunday. The Chicago Cubs’ top pitcher has enjoyed success at every level of his career, from high school to Texas Tech to the minor leagues.
But it was a lingering day because you only got one hit in your first game.
Throwing in Iowa, Kilian got the call from the Cubs on Thursday, which he called “the best birthday present ever.” If you ever think he uses superlatives, put yourself in his shoes.
The Cubs, being the Cubs, wouldn’t hint that Kilian would make his debut, claiming it was a state secret that could be ruined by the media. But everyone knew it, and by the time manager David Ross confirmed the obvious after Friday’s game, the news had already leaked on Twitter.
Kilian struggled to sleep Friday in his hotel room in Chicago, thinking about what lay ahead.
“When I was trying to sleep, I could hear my heart beating,” he laughed. “I’m glad I was able to fall asleep and rest. Most nerves were (Friday).
Kilian arrived at Wrigley early on Saturday to familiarize himself with his new surroundings and meet his teammates – some of whom he already knew – as well as coaches and clubhouse staff.
“The coolest ballpark ever,” he said. “What a place to start.”
Kilian’s parents, aunt and friends had enough notice to travel to Chicago. After receiving his first round of applause from bleacher fans as he stretched into the outfield, he came to the mound to Eric Church’s song “The Outsiders:”
“Back to the wall/A band of brothers/Together, alone, strangers.”
Kilian started by knocking out Tommy Edman on three pitches, ending the fight with a 96mph fastball. He stoked Nolan Gorman on a 1-2 curve, then broke Paul Goldschmidt’s bat while inducing the Cardinals star into a short groundout.
“It helped build confidence,” Kilian said, adding that he tries not to “let the moment get to me.”
He needed just 20 pitches in two innings to strike out the first six batters. And then he booked a perfect third with strikeouts from Yadier Molina and Edmundo Sosa.
But then came the fourth. The first at bat of the inning was briefly delayed by a ball that entered the field from the right field bleachers, forcing Rafael Ortega to dismiss it before play could resume.
Kilian then walked Edman four pitches. After a left volley from Gorman, Goldschmidt struck sharply down the middle, forcing Kilian to dance to avoid getting smoked.
A walk to Nolan Arenado loaded the bases and a breaking ball that bounced into the dirt and past receiver PJ Higgins brought the first inning. Brendan Donovan’s brace to left center tagged the other runners, and suddenly the Cardinals had a 3-1 lead.
“Two strikes hurts,” Kilian said of the two-point brace. “I should be better than this, but it happens. I can’t take it back.
By the end of the inning after Harrison Bader was caught stealing, Kilian had thrown 30 pitches in the fourth and 61 overall. The Cubs kept him within 80 shots in all but one of his nine minor league starts, but Ross fired Kilian for the fifth.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told him to relax and use his legs to get down on his delivery – and Kilian returned to his original form. He allowed a two-out hit to Sosa before pulling Edman out to end his night.
“I’m just giving it a reset, right?” Ross said he sent Kilian for the fifth. “The wheels did not fall off. He’s been in for a long time and they’ll have a round or two like that once in a while. Just put it back on that horse. He handled that very well, came out and threw a lot of strikes.
It was not a Rembrandt. No five-inning start can be considered a masterpiece. But it was a start, and Ross was delighted that Kilian showed what he was in his dominant first runs and his ability to come from the tough fourth when he lost command.
“He mixed his pitches well, had that tough run obviously,” Ross said. “But clean enough. It’s nice to see someone for the first time. I think he handled the moment very well. Came out firing BBs. His fastball feels real, his cutter, mixed and matched with his throws. He did a good job.
Ross had tried to downplay Kilian’s debut, perhaps to avoid the kind of media and fan scrutiny that Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and the rest of the Cubs’ 2015-16 prospects got. endured early in their career. He didn’t want Kilian to be seen as a “savior” of this rebuild or to pressure him to perform at a high level every time.
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But do not get me wrong. It’s a big deal for the Cubs and especially for president Jed Hoyer, who acquired Kilian last July from the San Francisco Giants in a deal that sent one of the club’s most popular players. team over the past three decades. Just as Bryant’s arrival in 2015 marked the unofficial start of the Cubs’ new era under Theo Epstein, Kilian’s call means the Hoyer regime is now in full swing.
It will be some time before the rest of the top prospects acquired in the 2021 Summer Sale are in the majors, as most were in the lower tiers at the time of the trades. Fair or not, Kilian will be the player the Cubs introduce to convince fans they made the right call treating the stars of their championship team instead of signing them for extensions.
“I just think people come here to watch the Cubs,” Kilian said, brushing off the pressure of being seen as a centerpiece in the rebuild.
The Cubs went on to lose in 10 innings in a game with few twists, including the Cardinals missing a chance to score the go-ahead when Sosa missed third while rounding base, forcing him to retreat. It will be a footnote to the story Kilian will tell years from now about his first day in the majors, playing in an iconic ballpark on a chilly June night.
“Best day of my life,” he said. “It was the best day of my life. To be able to make his Wrigley debut on Saturday night, it starts to rain, draw in ninth… I don’t think I can ask for more.
It was the first day of what the Cubs hope will be a long and successful run for Kilian and his new teammates.
Together, alone, strangers.