Two years ago, right-hander Matt Swarmer tried to stay ready during the uncertainty of a minor league season being canceled due to the pandemic.
His playing action in 2020 came from an unlikely source – an adult recreational league with players aged between 18 and 40.
“I was facing guys who had almost no hair,” Swarmer said Monday. “I was just trying to find a place to play or just find some live hitters.”
Swarmer was taking video of every outing and reaching out to his pitching coaches throughout that summer for feedback on how his pitches looked: “I just wanted to be ready whenever an opportunity presented itself.”
That follows a tough first 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 2016 19th-round pick from Kutztown University’s Division II in Pennsylvania — would make it to the majors.
He’s fought for the past six years to be on the mound Monday at Wrigley Field, the big league moment he’s dreamed of since he was 5 years old. His parents and uncle were among the 39,305 fans.
“I always thought (that) I just wanted to be a big leaguer one day,” Swarmer said. “I mean, coming from a guy who went to Division II, anything is possible for anyone. I just have 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 – just one earned – in six innings in his major league debut. He scattered five hits, walked one and struck out six, including the first hitter he faced, Kolten Wong. All but two of his 92 pitches were fastballs or four-seam sliders. He finished with 10 puffs and called strikes on his slider.
“He never felt like he was speeding up, which happens to a lot of guys,” manager David Ross said. “He just kept controlling what he could control, and that definitely stands out from a guy getting his big league debut.”
The Brewers completed a sweep with a 3-1 victory in the final drink despite only having three hits against Drew Smyly, Anderson Espinoza and Brandon Hughes. Smyly, who left before round four with oblique pain, will undergo imaging to determine the extent of the injury.
Swarmer was the first Cubs starter to allow an earned run or less and pitch six or more innings in his MLB debut since Dallas Beeler on June 28, 2014.
“My adrenaline was going up right away,” he said, “but I had to calm down and say, ‘Hey, it’s just another game. Just keep doing what I’ve been doing.
Swarmer was helped by throwing to a familiar target in catcher PJ Higgins, after spending the past three minor league seasons together. Higgins gave Swarmer a simple pre-game message: Got you.
“I was like, ‘It’s your major league debut, you’re going to be nervous, but trust me 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 not, but just for me, if someone said, hey, I got you and go out and do what you normally do , do not try to exaggerate anything, then everything will be fine.
Higgins also had a special moment in the Game 1 loss. His solo home run to the left in the third inning was his first major league home run. After the game, Higgins received the ball, fresh with a green mark thanks to a ricochet off the top of the small scoreboard above the left field basket.
“Honestly, the front court was a fastball that I fouled on 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 luckily 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 Triple A’s Nelson Velázquez before the doubleheader. He didn’t wait long to collect his first hit, hitting a field single on his first at bat.
Velázquez, 23, is the Cubs’ No. 16 prospect according to MLB.com and was Arizona’s Fall League MVP last year. He was promoted to Iowa in early May and hit .253 with nine doubles, one triple, 12 homers, 25 RBIs and a .914 OPS in 41 games between Double A and Triple A.
“It’s all a dream come true,” Velázquez said. “That’s all I wanted in my life.”
A clearly happy Velázquez is reuniting with longtime minor league teammate Christopher Morel.
“He’s my best friend,” said Velázquez, whose locker is a stone’s throw from Morel’s.
After the Cubs’ 12-inning loss to the White Sox on Sunday, Morel received a text from Velázquez saying he would see him soon. The bond between Velázquez and Morel dates back to 2018, when they first became teammates during Eugene’s short season. Their friendship only grew stronger over the ensuing years, progressing through the Cubs’ minor league system together.
“To me, he’s really like a brother,” Morel said through an interpreter. “Inside the baseball field, outside the baseball field, the only thing missing is the blood between us.”
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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 traded to the 60-day IL to create a 40-player berth for Swarmer, who posted a 2.08 ERA in nine games (five starts) in the ‘Iowa.
Espinoza, 24, also earned his first major league call-up, coming from Double-A Tennessee to serve as the 27th man for the doubleheader. The Cubs acquired him from the San Diego Padres in July for Jake Marisnick.
He made his debut in the fourth inning of Game 2 after Smyly came off and allowed two runs and three walks and struck out six in four innings.
“It’s been a congratulatory morning to a lot of guys for being here,” Ross said. “Happy for a lot of those guys who have worked hard and you get the reward to come and be in an environment like today.”
Espinoza underwent two operations by Tommy John which cost him four seasons (2017-20).
“I’m at a loss for words,” he said through an interpreter. “I never lost my faith. … I was just savoring the moment (tonight).