You always remember your first time at Wrigley Field.
Walking through the gates and down the darkened concourse. Seeing the green grass and ivy-covered bleacher walls as you enter the playing field. Glancing up at the old-school scoreboard and watching the seats fill in during the hours before game time, anticipation growing until the first pitch.
Caleb Kilian experienced all of that Saturday afternoon — and then he got to make his major-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals before 31,673 fans.
It was, he said afterwards, “the greatest day of my life.”
Surely there will be many more great days for the 25-year-old rookie, who was optioned back to Triple-A Iowa on Sunday. The Chicago Cubs’ top pitching prospect has experienced success at every level of his career, from high school to Texas Tech to the minor leagues.
But this was a day that would linger because you only get one shot at your first game.
Pitching at Iowa, Kilian got the call from the Cubs on Thursday, which he called the ”best birthday present ever.” If it already sounds like he talks in superlatives, put yourself in his shoes.
The Cubs, being the Cubs, wouldn’t let on that Kilian would be making his debut, pretending it was a state secret that could be ruined by the media. But everyone knew, and by the time manager David Ross confirmed the obvious after Friday’s game, the news had already leaked on Twitter.
Kilian had a hard time sleeping Friday in his Chicago hotel room, thinking about what was in store.
“When I was trying to sleep, I could hear my heartbeat,” he said with a laugh. “I’m glad I was able to fall asleep and get some rest. Most of the nerves were (Friday).”
Kilian got to Wrigley early Saturday to get comfortable with his new surroundings and meet his teammates — some of whom he already knew — and the coaches and clubhouse staff.
“Coolest ballpark ever,” he said. “What a place to start.”
Kilian’s parents, aunt and friends got enough notice to make it to Chicago. After getting his first round of applause from bleacher fans while stretching in the outfield, he came to the mound to Eric Church’s song ”The Outsiders:”
“Back to the wall/A band of brothers/Together, alone, the outsiders.”
Kilian started off by striking out Tommy Edman on three pitches, ending the at-bat with a 96 mph fastball. He fanned Nolan Gorman on a 1-2 curve, then broke Paul Goldschmidt’s bat while inducing the Cardinals star into a groundout to short.
“It helped build some confidence,” Kilian said, adding he was trying not to “let the moment get to me.”
He needed only 20 pitches in two innings to retire the first six hitters. And then he bookended a perfect third with strikeouts of Yadier Molina and Edmundo Sosa.
But then came the fourth. The first at-bat of the inning was briefly delayed by a ball that came onto the field from the right-field bleachers, forcing Rafael Ortega to throw it back before play could resume.
Kilian proceeded to walk Edman on four pitches. After a fly to left by Gorman, Goldschmidt singled sharply up the middle, making Kilian do a dance to avoid getting smoked.
A walk to Nolan Arenado loaded the bases, and a breaking ball that bounced in the dirt and got past catcher PJ Higgins brought in the first run. Brendan Donovan’s double to left-center scored the other runners, and suddenly the Cardinals had a 3-1 lead.
“Two strikes, it hurts,” Kilian said of the two-run double. “I should be better than that, but it happens. Can’t take it back.”
When the inning ended after Harrison Bader was caught stealing, Kilian had thrown 30 pitches in the fourth and 61 overall. The Cubs have kept him under 80 pitches in all but one of his nine minor-league starts, but Ross feels Kilian back out for the fifth.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told him to relax and use his legs to get downhill on his delivery — and Kilian reverted to his early form. He gave up a two-out infield hit to Sosa before striking out Edman to end his night.
“Just giving him a reset, right?” Ross said of sending Kilian out for the fifth. “The wheels didn’t fall off. He’s been a starter for a long time and they’re going to have an inning or two like that from time to time. Just get him back on that horse. He handled that really well, went out and threw a lot of strikes.”
It wasn’t a Rembrandt. No five-inning start can be considered a masterpiece. But it was a start, and Ross was pleased Kilian showed what he was all about in his dominating early innings and his ability to move on from the rocky fourth when he lost command.
“Mixed his pitches well, had that one rough inning obviously,” Ross said. “Got pretty clean. It’s nice to get a look at somebody for the first time. I think he handled the moment really well. Came out firing BBs. His fastball seems real, his cutter, mixed and matched his pitches. He did a nice job.”
Ross had tried to downplay the significance of Kilian’s debut, perhaps to avoid the kind of media and fan scrutiny Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and the rest of the Cubs prospects from 2015-16 endured early in their careers. He didn’t want Kilian to be considered a “savior” of this rebuild or to put pressure on him to perform at a high level every time out.
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But make no mistake. This is a big deal for the Cubs and especially for President Jed Hoyer, who acquired Kilian last July from the San Francisco Giants in a deal that sent one of the team’s most popular players of the last three decades packing. Just as Bryant’s arrival in 2015 signaled the unofficial start of the new Cubs era under Theo Epstein, Kilian’s call-up means the Hoyer regime is now in full throttle.
It will be a while before the rest of the top prospects acquired from the summer sell-off of 2021 are in the majors because most were in the lower levels at the time of the trades. Fair or not, Kilian will be the player the Cubs showcase to convince fans they made the right call in dealing the stars of their championship team instead of signing them to extensions.
“I just think people come out here to watch the Cubs,” Kilian said, shrugging off the pressure of being looked at as a centerpiece of the rebuild.
The Cubs went on to lose in 10 innings in a game with a few twists and turns, including the Cardinals missing a chance to score the go-ahead run when Sosa missed third while rounding the base, forcing him to retreat. That will be a footnote to the story Kilian tells years from now about his first day in the majors, pitching in an iconic ballpark on a cool night in June.
“Best day ever,” he said. “It was the best day of my life. To be able to debut at Wrigley, Saturday night, it starts raining, tie game in the ninth … I don’t think I could ask for anything better.”
It was the first day of what the Cubs hope will be a long and successful run for Kilian and his new teammates.
Together, alone, the outsiders.