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There’s going to be nerves for any athlete, in any sport, playing on a stage they’ve never played on before.
That’s of course true in Major League Baseball. Despite how confident in themselves players who make it to that level are — and have to be, really — there’s nothing like touching a field for the first time as a big leaguer. Bigger crowds, more intensity, better competition — that all plays into the nerves that come in that moment.
But then, they realize it’s still the same game they’ve played their whole lives. For Jordan Wicks, his “Hoosiers” moments (you know, the “I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym in Hickory” scene from the 1986 film) came during the first inning of his MLB debut.
Things didn’t start off well for him on Aug. 26 in Pittsburgh. He gave up a home run on just his second major league pitch, then followed up allowing a single and a walk. After starting off the Pirates’ fourth hitter of the game with two balls, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy took a mound visit to give Wicks a chance to settle down and remind him to do what he does best.
It set in that this was “the same game I’ve been playing this whole entire time,” and Wicks took off.
He struck out the next five batters, the first Cubs pitcher to do so in an MLB debut since at least 1920 (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). He ended up sending 15 straight Pirates back to the dugout before exiting the game after the fifth inning, finishing with nine strikeouts and earning his first big league ‘W.’
“Things weren’t working real well to start, which was fine, and then we just started throwing changeups,” Wicks told CHGO during a sit-down conversation at the Cubs Convention. “We went back to the bread and butter and we just went back to what our strengths were. That gave me a lot of confidence, like, OK, we got this established, we got out of that inning.
“And now, once we found that groove a little bit, we started to expand to other things — throwing the cutter, throwing the sinker, throwing the curveball, that sort of stuff. So just being able to have that bread and butter to go back to is huge, because it just allowed me to settle in, allowed me to get that comfort.”
Wicks didn’t necessarily think he’d be up with the Cubs at that point last season. The way he’d initially mapped things out, he’d go through Double-A and Triple-A, and then he’d really compete for a rotation job in spring 2024.
But injuries and some underperformance at the big league level opened a door for a youngster to step up during the Cubs’ playoff push. So, they turned to Wicks.
“A lot of it’s about who’s pitching the best at the right time,” he said. “We had a couple of injuries in Iowa, we had a couple in the big leagues, and so something that looks so far away when I first got to Triple-A all of a sudden was like, ‘I might be the next guy up here.'”
Wicks ultimately made seven starts for the Cubs, finishing 4-1 with a 4.41 ERA (a bit inflated after allowing six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings in his last outing of the year).
He had some highs and lows in that month, as many rookies do in their first taste of the big leagues. But he believes getting that experience will be pretty beneficial for what comes next.
“It just gives you that comfort of, OK, this is what it’s like. This is what works there. This is what doesn’t work,” Wicks said. “And just being able to have that familiarity going into the offseason shows you, OK, this is what I need to work on in the offseason. This is what I was good at and need to build off of, and this is what I need to kind of figure out.”
It all started on that summer night in Pittsburgh. After taking the Pirates’ early shot, Wicks delivered a major blow right back.
Making it to the big leagues was special by itself. Knowing Wicks — who said early in September, “I don’t really think about the personal success. I’m not satisfied until we’re in the playoffs. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s my goal” — contributing to the win was pretty important, too.
And having a big group of family and friends there, along with his new teammates, made it a night to remember.
“They made that moment even more special for me,” Wicks said. “Just being able to be around them and share it with a lot of the people that made such a huge impact on me was what made it as special as it was. Obviously, getting to share that moment with the guys and the teammates, they were incredible. They made it worthwhile.
“It was a dream come true.”
Check out the rest of CHGO’s interview with Jordan Wicks below to hear him talk learning from successful pitchers of the past, his reaction to the Cubs’ shocking managerial move, the Shōta Imanaga signing and more.
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