What to make of Caleb Kilian’s MLB debut — and what comes next
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Donning a No. 45 jersey on a brisk June night, Caleb Kilian jogged to the Wrigley Field mound as Eric Church’s “The Outsiders” blared over the loudspeakers.
It didn’t take long for Kilian to show the baseball world how he rolls.
His first MLB pitch buzzed in at 93.4 mph for a strike.
His second pitch was clocked at 95.8 mph for Strike 2.
Kilian dialed it up another notch, hitting 96.4 mph as Cardinals leadoff hitter Tommy Edman flailed through the pitch.
Just like that, Kilian had his first big league out.
By and large, you could not ask for a more perfect start in a debut — literally.
The next batter was fellow rookie Nolan Gorman. Strikeout swinging again, this time on a curveball in the dirt.
Next up was Paul Goldschmidt, who woke up Saturday morning with a 25-game hitting streak before it was snapped in Game 1 Monday. The end result? A weak groundout to shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
“I think [the 1st inning] helped build some confidence,” Kilian said. “I was honestly just thinking about throwing at the mitt each pitch. One at a time, not trying to let the whole moment get to me and just breathe and relax out there.”
Kilian didn’t back down from there, setting the Cardinals down in order the first time through the lineup. He induced 6 swings and misses over 3 perfect innings.
The 4th inning didn’t follow the same script, however.
Kilian walked Edman on 4 pitches to begin the frame and after a flyout, Goldschmidt broke up the no-hitter with a single up the middle. Then Nolan Arenado walked, Kilian threw a wild pitch to plate a run and Brendan Donovan slapped a double to left-center.
Just like that, the Cardinals had 3 runs.
Kilian got some help from his defense to get out of the inning, with Simmons throwing out Donovan at home on a fielder’s choice and then catcher P.J. Higgins nabbing Harrison Bader on a stolen base attempt.
Kilian showed he could make adjustments in the middle of games, too. Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy noticed Kilian wasn’t using his legs as much to drive off the mound in that 4th inning, so the young right-hander corrected the issue and tossed up a scoreless 5th inning before exiting the game.
“He handled that really well,” David Ross said. “Went back out and threw a lot of strikes. Really nice job.”
His final line: 5 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K (83 pitches, 50 strikes).
Saturday marked Kilian’s first time ever stepping foot at Wrigley Field. About an hour before Game 1, he walked out to the Cubs dugout to get a glimpse at “The Friendly Confines” — an experience he called “breathtaking.”
Kilian believes watching the first game of the doubleheader actually helped him gain some comfort before taking the ball for Game 2.
“Honestly, I was able to relax when I got here,” he said. “But last night when I was trying to sleep, I could hear my heartbeat. I’m glad I was able to fall asleep and get some rest. I think most of the nerves were actually yesterday.”
Kilian was able to celebrate the moment with friends and family, hanging out on the field after the Cubs’ 7-4 loss. He actually found out on Thursday — his 25th birthday — that he was getting the call up to the big leagues but couldn’t tell anybody for a couple days.
“It was the best day ever,” Kilian said. “Best day of my life. To be able to debut at Wrigley, Saturday night, against the Cardinals and it starts raining, tie game in the 9th. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
All in all, it’s fair to say Kilian lived up to the hype.
Leading up to Saturday, much of the start was trying to paint Kilian’s debut against the backdrop of Cubs franchise history. When was the last time a starting pitcher came up to the majors with this much fanfare?
The answer is probably Mark Prior…20 years ago.
In a way, Kilian even resembled Prior on the mound — a tall, lanky right-hander with his pants legs pulled up to reveal the Cubbie blue high socks.
Kilian sat 92-95 mph with his sinker and 4-seam fastball on the night, though he did throw a few at 96-97 mph.
The question now becomes: What’s next?
Kilian has pitched really well in Triple-A this season (2-0, 2.06 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.4 K/9) but this is the 25-year-old’s first season pitching above the Double-A level.
A few days ago, the Cubs had a clear need in the starting rotation as veterans Wade Miley and Drew Smyly hit the injured list. But Keegan Thompson and rookie Matt Swarmer have been impressive since joining the rotation and may have filled those holes — for now.
[MORE: Matt Swarmer has suddenly emerged as an intriguing piece for Cubs rotation]
The Cubs loved what Thompson provided the team as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen and it’s possible they move him back into that role to create room for Kilian in “The Show.” But the team has already stated Thompson will get some run in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
The most likely option may be that the Cubs send Kilian back down to Iowa when veteran reliever Chris Martin returns from the bereavement list. The Cubs have been cautious with Kilian’s workload this season and he can head down to the minors armed with the data and lessons from his first foray in the majors.
Entering a week filled with games — including a pair of doubleheaders — the Cubs initially said Kilian was not in the mix to come up and start, calling up Swarmer for Monday’s double dip instead.
Once injuries struck the rotation, a luxury turned into a necessity and Kilian became the obvious choice.
Now that the doubleheaders are over and the Cubs are entering a week in which they have a pair of off-days (Monday and Thursday), the organization might be inclined to refer back to the original plan with Kilian:
“I don’t think his development is done yet,” Jed Hoyer said on May 28. “There are more steps and there’s probably development that will happen when he gets up here. We’ve had good conversations with him about his timeline. He knows where things are and where things stand.”