Two years ago, right-handed Matt Swarmer tried to stay fit during the uncertainty of the minor league season that was canceled due to the pandemic.
His in-game action for 2020 came from an unexpected source – an adult entertainment league with players between the ages of 18-40.
“I’ve been running into guys who have almost no hair,” Swarmer said Monday. “I was just trying to find a place to play or find live hitters.”
Swarmer was videotaping each outing and checking in with his coaches that summer to get feedback on what his pitches were like: “I just wanted to be ready whenever I had the chance.”
This followed a challenging first season at Triple-A Iowa in 2019 in which he allowed a club record 36 times in 27 games and changed his grip on the slider. There was absolutely no guarantee that Swarmer — a 19th-round pick in 2016 from Division II from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania — would make it to the majors.
He’s fought for the past six years to be on the hill 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’ve always had a mode of thinking (that) I just want to be a big player someday,” Swarmer said. “I mean, coming from a guy who went to Division Two, anything is possible for anyone. You 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 – he only got one – in six in his major league debut. He split five hits, walked one and hit six, including the first hit he faced, Colton Wong. All but two of his 92 pitches were four-ply speedball or slide. He finished with ten puffs and called hits on his slider.
“I’ve never felt it’s faster, which is what happens to a lot of players,” said manager David Ross. “Just keep controlling what he can control, and that definitely stands out from a guy who is making his debut in the big leagues.”
Swarmer is the first Cubs player to allow one earned pass or less and play at least six innings in his MLB debut since the Dallas Buller on June 28, 2014.
“My adrenaline was pumping right away,” he said, “but I had to calm down and say, ‘Hey, this is just another game. Just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Swarmer was helped by the promotion of a familiar target in catcher PJ Higgins, having spent the last three seasons in the minor league together. Higgins Swarmer gave a simple message before the match: I’ve got you.
“I was like: ‘This is your first big league debut, you’re going to be nervous, but trust me back there. Don’t worry about anything else,” said Higgins of their conversation. “I think this might be helpful–I don’t know if it’s the case or not, but just for me, if someone says, ‘Hey, I’ve got you and done what you normally do, don’t try to exaggerate anything, you’ll be fine.'”
Higgins had a special moment too while losing Game 1. His solo home run to the left in the third inning was his first major league game. After the match, Higgins received the ball, new with a green flag thanks to a bounce off the top of the smaller scoreboard above the left field basket.
“Honestly, the field before was a fast ball I missed and in my head I went crazy,” Higgins said. “I was like, ‘Just hit the ball into the barrel and run. “And then fortunately, I hit the ball on the barrel and put it into play on that swing.”
The right-hand starter in Swarmer’s appearance was another familiar face. The Cubs also called Triple A’s Nelson Velasquez before the double header. He didn’t wait long to collect his first hit, as he put out a single on his first hit.
Velázquez is the 16th overall for the Cubs according to MLB.com and was the Arizona League Player of the Year last year. He promoted to Iowa in early May and hit .253 with nine pairs, one triple, 12 home runs, 25 RBIs and .914 OPS in 41 games between Double A and Triple A.
“Everything is a dream come true,” said Velasquez. “It’s everything I’ve ever wished for in my life.”
The obviously happy Velasquez is reunited with an old little league His colleague Christopher Morell.
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He’s my best friend,” said Velazquez, whose safe is two miles from Muriel’s.
After the Cubs lost 12 games to the White Sox on Sunday, Morell received a text message from Velasquez saying he would see him soon. The relationship between Velasquez and Morell dates back to 2018, when they became teammates for the first time in Eugene’s short season. Their friendship has only solidified in the years since, as they rise together through Cubs’ minor system.
“To me, he’s really like a brother,” Morell said through an interpreter. “Inside the baseball field, outside the baseball field, the only thing missing is the blood between us.”
The debuts and professional debuts were part of a busy Monday for the Cubs, who made seven moves, including additions for Velasquez and Swarmer. Most notably, the right fielder Seiya Suzuki entered the injured list Left ring finger sprain.
Ethan Roberts transferred from the right hand (right shoulder inflammation) to IL for 60 days to create a 40-man spot for Swarmer, who posted a 2.08 ERA in nine games (five starts) in Iowa.
Right-hand man Anderson Espinosa also earned his first major league call-up, growing out of Double-A Tennessee to be the 27th man for the double-header. Espinosa, 24, was bought from San Diego Padres in July for Jake Maresnick. He made his debut in the fourth inning of Game 2, replacing left-handed Drew Smiley, who came off with a right-skewed pain.
“It was a morning to congratulate so many guys for being here,” Ross said. “Happy for so many of these guys who put in so much effort and you get rewarded to come and be in an environment like today.”