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Latest chapter in Alec Mills’ incredible story of perseverance includes emphatic no-hitter

3 years agoAndy Martinez

Alec Mills isn’t one to let an opportunity slip past him. It’s never really been in his DNA.

As Mills ambled around Skyhawk Field in Martin, Tenn., the major leagues may as well have been on Mars. Mills wasn’t even a member of the University of Tennessee-Martin baseball team, so it would have been hard to believe throwing a pitch in a major league park, let alone a big-league no-hitter, would be an attainable goal.

But he strolled along, hoping to just get an opportunity. So, he went up to coach Bubba Cates and his staff and asked for a tryout.

It led to a bullpen session. And then another. And another. He never was officially told he made the team, but he pitched well enough to earn a spot as a reliever in the Skyhawks’ pen. That turned into him becoming the team’s setup man the next season and the following season he was Tennessee-Martin’s ace, leading to a 22nd-round selection by the Royals in the 2012 draft.

“They gave me a chance [at Tennessee-Martin] and other teams have also given me a chance,” Mills said.

It was just what he had hoped for. Mills took his opportunity and signed with the Royals, but it wasn’t an easy ride. He suffered setbacks, including Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in 2013. But he continued to grind in the minor leagues for five seasons, going from a mid-round pick to the Royals’ top pitching prospect in 2016.

He would have to prove himself again to a new organization after being traded to the Cubs in 2017.  He seemed to be a nice fit in his first two seasons with the Cubs in 2018 and 2019, pitching in 16 games to a 3.17 ERA, primarily out of the bullpen, but making 6 starts.

This season was primed to be a huge opportunity for Mills, so he wasn’t going to let it slither through his fingers. He prepared all offseason for a chance to compete for a spot in the Cubs rotation.

“Every offseason and every time coming in, I’m [preparing] to be ready to pitch 200 innings at the big-league level,” Mills said.

He battled in spring training in Mesa, Ariz., for the Cubs’ fifth starter spot with Tyler Chatwood. He made a strong case, too. Mills went 1-0 in 5 games, 3 of them starts, pitching to an 0.84 ERA and a 0.66 WHIP in 10.2 innings of Cactus League work.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and he returned with his wife, Paige, and their son, Carter, to his hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. He continued to work out pitching to Austin Peay University hitters, determined to make the most of an opportunity in 2020.

When he reported to Wrigley Field in July, he was prepared to compete for a rotation spot. His competition was made easier with the news that José Quintana had suffered a thumb laceration and would miss the start of the season.

Again, Mills seized his opportunity.

He pitched quality starts in his first two games of the year, as the Cubs picked up wins in both games.

“That [offseason] mindset helped me step in and kinda fill in for Q,” Mills said.

But he hit a rough patch, allowing 4 runs and 6 runs, respectively in his next two starts. He had another win in his fifth start of the season, but then pitched to a no-decision after pitching just 3 innings in his next start and suffered a loss in the ensuing start.

“It’s so easy to get away from yourself when things aren’t working,” Mills said. “[You] really start searching for things to kinda make things different to make yourself better, but at the same time, a lot of times that makes things worse.”

So, Mills tried to correct things and get back to the pitcher that he was.

He seemed to turn a corner on September 8, when he struck out 6 and kept the Reds scoreless in 6 innings. That gave him some confidence going into Sunday afternoon’s start. He picked up even more moxie when he saw Saturday’s performance by Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs’ ferocious 9th inning rally.

“All right,” Mills told Hendricks, “I’m going to beat you tomorrow.”

Hendricks, who pitched 7.2 strong innings replied: “All right, do it.”

Mills did it, all right. He did it by twirling the outing of his life, striking out 5 in his first career no-hitter.

It was a pinnacle moment for Mills. Here was a pitcher who went from being a potential long reliever in a Cubs bullpen, to starting and delivering in key September ball games as the Cubs make a pennant push.

As surreal and wild as the moments after the final out nestled in Anthony Rizzo’s glove were, the day served as vindication for the belief and work Mills has put in to get to where he is.

“That’s something I’ll be sharing with my family and friends and stuff for a long time,” Mills said. “I’m just proud to be able to be that person that can tell you to never give up, never stop playing, never let people tell what you can and can’t do and just keep persevering and be the best person you can be.”

No-hitter or not, Mills has definitely been that inspiration. He couldn’t miss that chance, either.

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