Two years ago, right-hander Matt Swarmer tried to stay ready during the uncertainty of a minor-league season canceled because of the pandemic.
His 2020 game action came from an unlikely source — an adult recreational league with players ranging from 18 to 40 years old.
“I was facing guys that almost didn’t have hair,” Swarmer said Monday. “I was just trying to find anywhere to play or just find live hitters.”
Swarmer would take video of every outing and check in with his pitching coaches throughout that summer to get feedback on how his pitches looked: “I just wanted to be ready whenever an opportunity presented itself.”
This came on the heels of a challenging debut season at Triple-A Iowa in 2019 in which he allowed a club-record 36 home runs in 27 games and changed his slider grip. There was never a guarantee that Swarmer — a 19th-round pick in 2016 out of Division II Kutztown University of Pennsylvania — would reach the majors.
He battled over the last six years to be on the mound Monday at Wrigley Field, the big-league moment he dreamed of since he was 5 years old. His parents and uncle were among the 39,305 fans.
“I always had my mind set (that) I just want to be a big-leaguer one day,” Swarmer said. “I mean, coming from a guy who went to Division II, anything is possible for anybody. Just got to work hard and good things will happen.”
Swarmer, 28, gave the Chicago Cubs exactly what they needed in a 7-6 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 1 of a doubleheader.
He allowed four runs — only one earned — in six innings in his major-league debut. He scattered five hits, walked one and struck out six, including the first batter he faced, Kolten Wong. All but two of his 92 pitches were a four-seam fastball or slider. He finished with 10 whiffs and called strikes on his slider.
“It never felt like he sped up, which happens to a lot of guys,” manager David Ross said. “Just continued to control what he could control, and that definitely stands out from a guy making his first start in the big leagues.”
Swarmer is the first Cubs starter to allow one earned run or fewer and pitch at least six innings in his MLB debut since Dallas Beeler on June 28, 2014.
“My adrenaline was pumping right away,” he said, “but I had to just cool down and say: ‘Hey, this is just another game. Just keep doing what I’ve been doing.’”
Swarmer was aided by pitching to a familiar target in catcher P.J. Higgins, having spent the last three minor-league seasons together. Higgins gave Swarmer a simple pregame message: I’ve got you.
“I was like: ‘This is your big-league debut, you’re going to be nervous, but just trust me back there. Don’t worry about anything else‚’” Higgins said of their conversation. “I think that may have helped — I don’t know if it did or didn’t, but just for me, if someone were to say, hey, I’ve got you and just go out and do what you normally do, not try to overdo anything, then you’re going to be fine.”
Higgins experienced a special moment, too, during the Game 1 loss. His go-ahead solo home run to left in the third inning was his first big-league homer. After the game, Higgins received the ball, fresh with a green mark thanks to a ricochet off the top of the smaller scoreboard above the left-field basket.
“Honestly, the pitch before was a fastball that I fouled off and in my head I got mad,” Higgins said. “I was like, ‘Just hit the ball on the barrel and put it in play.’ And then fortunately, I hit the ball on the barrel and put it in play on that swing.”
The starting right fielder for Swarmer’s debut was another familiar face. The Cubs also called up Nelson Velázquez from Triple A before the doubleheader. He didn’t wait long to collect his first hit, legging out an infield single in his first at-bat.
Velázquez is the Cubs’ No. 16 prospect according to MLB.com and was the Arizona Fall League MVP last year. He was promoted to Iowa in early May and has hit .253 with nine doubles, one triple, 12 home runs, 25 RBIs and a .914 OPS in 41 games between Double A and Triple A.
“Everything is a dream come true,” Velázquez said. “It’s everything I wished for in my life.”
A clearly happy Velázquez is reunited with longtime minor-league teammate Christopher Morel.
“He’s my bestie,” said Velázquez, whose locker is two down from Morel’s.
After the Cubs’ 12-inning loss to the White Sox on Sunday, Morel received a text from Velázquez that said he would see him soon. The bond between Velázquez and Morel traces back to 2018, when they first became teammates at short-season Eugene. Their friendship has only strengthened in the years since, rising through the Cubs minor-league system together.
“For me, he’s like a brother really,” Morel said through an interpreter. “Inside the baseball field, outside the baseball field, the only thing that’s missing is blood between us.”
The debuts and career firsts were part of a busy Monday for the Cubs, who made seven moves, including the additions of Velázquez and Swarmer. Most notably, right fielder Seiya Suzuki went on the injured list with a sprained left ring finger.
Right-hander Ethan Roberts (right shoulder inflammation) was transferred to the 60-day IL to create a 40-man spot for Swarmer, who posted a 2.08 ERA in nine games (five starts) at Iowa.
Right-hander Anderson Espinoza also earned his first major-league call-up, brought up from Double-A Tennessee to serve as the 27th man for the doubleheader. Espinoza, 24, was acquired from the San Diego Padres in July for Jake Marisnick. He debuted in the fourth inning of Game 2, replacing left-hander Drew Smyly, who exited with right oblique soreness.
“It’s been a been a morning of congratulating a lot of guys for being up here,” Ross said. “Happy for a lot of those guys that have put in the hard work and you get the reward to come up and be in an environment like today.”