A story of perseverance: Tommy Nance’s incredible journey to the Cubs bullpen
When Tommy Nance took in his first game at Wrigley Field on May 27, 2015, he couldn’t help but daydream about one day taking the field as a player.
He was pitching for the Windy City Thunderbolts in the Independent League at the time and made the half-hour trip with his teammates from Crestwood to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs take on the Nationals.
Almost exactly six years later, his dream had come true — he was out there on the same Wrigley Field mound and actually *facing* the Nationals.
Nance made his MLB debut Monday night, closing out the 7-3 victory with a scoreless 9th inning:
At 30 years old, he became the oldest Cubs pitcher to make his MLB debut since 33-year-old Tsuyoshi Wada accomplished the feat in July 2014.
Before the game, Nance sat in the dugout and chatted with David Ross, even pointing out where he sat for that first Wrigley Field experience.
“It was everything I imagined and more,” Nance said. “It was always my dream to suit up and step on a major league diamond. I’ve done it in spring training but it’s not quite the same. So when I came up the tunnel and up the stairs and stepped on the field, it was a whole different atmosphere.
“When I got called in to go into the game and I’m stepping out of the bullpen going through those doors and it’s just lights — lights on me. I can hear the fans behind me, calling my name and I’m jogging out to the mound. It was just an unbelievable experience and atmosphere.”
It’s been a long, winding road for Nance to get to this point.
He went undrafted out of college and had Tommy John surgery after his senior year at Santa Clara University that kept him out of baseball for two years.
From there, he got invited to throw a bullpen in front of Independent League coaches at the California Winter League in Palm Springs and wound up signing with the Thunderbolts in the Chicagoland area.
He knew it would be an arduous journey from Independent ball to the majors but it was an adventure he was set on taking.
“It’s funny because [Wrigley] is like 25, 30 mins away from Crestwood — it’s right there, so it’s almost a tease,” Nance said. “It definitely felt far away but that never stopped me from wanting to keep going for that.”
He made 29 appearances for the Windy City squad before the big league club came calling and inked him to a minor league deal before the 2016 season.
Nance pitched at four different levels in the Cubs system in 2016 but the following year, he had a nerve issue in his shoulder and missed the entire campaign. The doctors told him they had never seen that particular injury in a baseball player before. He thought about quitting but decided to push through, posting a note on Twitter at the time:
“It’s been my dream since I was a little kid,” he said Tuesday. “It’s really that simple. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices; a lot of us have made a lot of sacrifices to get where we are. I’ve always wanted to be a big leaguer.
“For me, I don’t have kids right now but when I have kids one day and they ask, ‘why did you stop?’ I didn’t want to have a good answer for them. For me, that also pushed me forward.”
Nance began 2021 in the Cubs’ big league camp in spring training and then went to the alternate site. From there, he made 3 appearances with Triple-A Iowa, striking out 10 batters in 6 innings.
When Alec Mills hit the injured list over the weekend, the Cubs called Nance’s number and he was added to the roster Sunday.
He flashed some eye-popping stuff in his debut Monday night, touching 97 mph with his fastball and featuring a pair of breaking balls (curveball and slider).
He even made it onto Pitching Ninja’s radar:
Tommy Nance, Filthy 87mph Slider. 😷 pic.twitter.com/1d7KWAYKfp— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 18, 2021
He also drew a lofty comparison from Cubs legend Rick Sutcliffe:
Nance got to keep the ball from his first strikeout and Anthony Rizzo also gave him the baseball from the final out.
His parents were unable to be at Wrigley for the debut but they had a bunch of friends and family over to watch the game on TV and chatted with Nance afterwards.
“I got a huge support system at home,” Nance said. “It’s almost overwhelming the people that have reached out to me the last few days. It’s been really special.”
Nance became the fourth Cubs pitcher to make his MLB debut this season, joining Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Trevor Megill.
After all he’s been through, the Cubs were ecstatic for Nance to finally get to live out his dream.
“Everybody loves a good story and not everybody’s the first-rounder that gets all the hype and gets to go on the path that like a [Kris Bryant] gets to go on,” Ross said. “Those are so few and far between. It was nice.
“He seems like just a kid that loves to be at the ballpark and wants to be out there competing, handles that moment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or older making your debut, usually that’s a big deal and you see some nerves. Didn’t see those yesterday.
“I think his story is one of those you fall in love with — the hard worker that never gives up and continues to push and fight. Things may develop a little bit later than most and he comes in and he gets a shot to be a big league pitcher and to impact a really talented team.”