Caleb Kilian’s much-anticipated start Saturday night at Wrigley Field rekindled memories of similar Chicago Cubs debuts, from Jeff Pico to Kyle Hendricks.
You never know whether a Cubs pitcher’s first start is the harbinger of things to come or just a cameo appearance in a career soon to be forgotten.
Kilian showed Saturday he has the right stuff, but one bad inning prevented the Cubs’ top pitching prospect from making the night a total success. He lasted five innings in a 7-4, 10-inning loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, throwing 83 pitches and allowing three runs, three hits and two walks while striking out six.
Before a 6-1 win in Game 1 of the split doubleheader, Cubs manager David Ross — who watched a parade of celebrated prospects make their debuts in 2015 and ’16 — tempered expectations for Kilian.
“From a player’s standpoint, and even as the manager now, sitting in this seat, it’s a lot of wait-and-see,” Ross said. “It’s exciting from his standpoint his, (doing the) hard work and coming over. He’s been impressive in a lot of ways. Still, you have to make your major-league career.
“No one knows how it’s going to go. I’m happy for him. All the hard work has paid off. You don’t try to hype it up too much. I don’t think any one player is ever the savior. We put the label on some young men. We’ll see how it goes, and we’ll analyze it afterward.”
First impressions are lasting, and Kilian opened with a bang. He struck out the first two hitters and was perfect through the third before before running into trouble in the fourth, when he loaded the bases with two walks and a single. A wild pitch brought home the first Cardinals run, and Brendan Donovan followed with a two-run double.
After getting through the first nine hitters on only 31 pitches, Kilian looked out of sync in the fourth, throwing 30 pitches in the inning. He left trailing 3-1 but got a no decision after Christopher Morel’s RBI double tied the game in the sixth.
“First time (at Wrigley) — the coolest ballpark ever,” Kilian said. “What a place to debut. It was breathtaking when I first walked out there to see this place.”
The game entered the Twilight Zone in the ninth when the Cardinals missed a chance to take the lead on Nolan Gorman’s two-out single off David Robertson with two men on. Edmundo Sosa would’ve easily scored from second but missed touching third and had to retreat to the bag. Robertson then induced Paul Goldschmidt to hit into a force play with the bases loaded, ending the threat.
The Cubs stranded two in the ninth, sending the game into extra innings. The Cardinals scored four in the 10th off Michael Rucker.
Matt Swarmer, who made his debut Mondayearned his first victory in Saturday’s opener, allowing one run on two hits in six innings.
Swarmer was nearly speechless after facing the likes of Albert Pujols and Paul Goldschmidt.
“Just trying not to think about the hitters as much,” he said. “I know there are some big-name guys, but you have to avoid (thinking about it). It’s definitely hard because you’re just like, ‘Wow, he’s actually in the box.’”
Frank Schwindel homered and drove in a pair of runs, and Scott Effross escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh when plate umpire Bruce Dreckman called Tommy Edman out on strikes on a pitch several inches outside the zone.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol was ejected by Dreckman for arguing the next inning, and the Cardinals never threatened again.
Kilian was attempting in Game 2 to become the first Cubs starter to win his big-league debut since Ryan O’Malley beat the Houston Astros 1-0 with eight scoreless innings on Aug. 16, 2006, at Minute Maid Park.
O’Malley was a last-minute call-up from Triple-A Iowa only because it was his turn to start and the Cubs were all out of pitchers after an 18-inning game the previous night. He barely had time to pack but wasn’t worried when asked afterward if he had enough clothes for the flight to Chicago.
“Oh, yes, definitely,” he replied. “I’m not going to let my clothes get in the way of this.”
But the dream was short-lived and he didn’t need much of a wardrobe after all. O’Malley suffered a left elbow strain during the fifth inning of his Wrigley Field debut, a 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
After the game, O’Malley stood despondent in front of the Waveland Avenue firehouse, where teammate Rich Hill tried to console him.
“It was like I was on cloud nine and then I just fell off of it,” O’Malley said.
Hill still is pitching for the Boston Red Sox at age 42, but that would be the end of O’Malley’s major-league career after only two outings. Pico, likewise, threw a four-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds in his debut his on May 31, 1988, but won only 12 more games in a three-year career.
You never know.
Before Swarmer and Kilian started Saturday, the fewest combined major-league innings by a pair of Cubs starters in a doubleheader had come against the Cardinals on Oct. 6, 1909. Rudy Schwenck had two starts and nine innings under his belt, while King Cole was making his big-league debut — and tossed a complete-game shutout.
It has been 46 years since the Cubs had two pitchers start a doubleheader with fewer than one combined start. Neither Oscar Zamora nor Paul Reuschel, both relievers at time, had a start when they faced the San Francisco Giants on May 2, 1976, at Candlestick Park.
No one forgets their first start, no matter the outcome.
But some are more memorable than others, and Kilian can feel good about his performance.