The day has finally come. The Pitcher that was Promised actually made his way to Wrigley Field and was as good as advertised.
Adbert Alzolay's first big-league game Thursday might be the most thrilling debut for a pitching prospect for Cubs fans since Mark Prior and it represents the end of a long road for the 24-year-old right-hander and for the organization in general.
The Cubs initially signed Alzolay in 2012 as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela, but he really didn't put himself on the map until a breakout 2017 season with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. He probably would've made his debut last year if not for a lat injury that ended his season in late May and he has the potential to be the first homegrown pitcher to make a real impact at the big-league level under Theo Epstein's front office.
"The stuff's really pretty good — good delivery, strike-thrower," Joe Maddon said. "All those kinds of things. He has the kind of ability that he could transform a group. Then again, you don't want to lay too much on him. He's a young man, he's just trying to make his mark.
"With the surroundings here and the other guys that are on the staff to wrap their arms around him, I think this is the perfect situation for him to morph into a team like this."
The Cubs wanted to ease Alzolay into major-league life and felt Tyler Chatwood had earned an opportunity to start Thursday's game amid a resurgent season, so Alzolay instead served as the piggyback option in relief and wound up notching the win in the Cubs' 7-4 victory.
The young pitcher entered in the fifth and threw 4 hitless innings — striking out 5 and allowing only a lone walk — before he gave up a home run and a walk to start the ninth inning, prompting Maddon to turn to Steve Cishek to finish things off.
Alzolay walked off the mound to a standing ovation and tipped his cap to the 38,956 Cubs fans in attendance as he strolled back to the dugout.
"The best thing that's ever happened to me," a giddy Alzolay said after the game. "Amazing. All the people were cheering my name. Just went out there and did my job, did my part and we won the game. It was amazing.
"When I started jogging to the mound and when I looked at the first hitter, I was like, 'oh my gosh, everything is coming true right now — everything that I always dreamed as a kid.'"
Alzolay's teammates and manager lauded his composure on the mound and he said it felt like business as usual after the first two hitters he faced. His family got to watch the game back in Venezuela and he was able to enjoy the moment with them over the phone, reveling in the joy and even shedding some tears.
"He wasn't really fazed, so that was nice," Anthony Rizzo said. "After he settled in, he was commanding the strike zone. It's a nice beginning. He should be excited. It's an exciting day. It brings all of us back to that day, being little kids and happy."
The Cubs haven't made any determinations beyond Thursday's game with their rotation, so it's possible Alzolay and Chatwood could both be vying for the next turn in the order as Kyle Hendricks' return from a shoulder injury is not imminent.
Nobody can predict the future, but Maddon said the Cubs have already been discussing "different methods" in how they can keep Alzolay here in Chicago, even when Hendricks returns. If the young pitcher performs, he could be a real weapon for the team in the second half and down the stretch.
Of course, it's all about health with Alzolay and there is no guarantee he has immediate success. But he was on fire in Triple-A Iowa before the promotion — 1.93 ERA, 40 strikeouts vs. only 3 walks in his last 28 innings — and with a group of veteran pitchers around him in Chicago to learn from, it wouldn't be crazy to see him stick. It also helps that he has a fellow Venezuelan native as his catcher (Willson Contreras).
"I'm betting on him," Maddon said pregame and then jokingly looked around after the game to see where he could cash out his successful bet.
Alzolay has credited his development as a pitcher to improved production from his curveball and feels more confident in his changeup to accompany a fastball that can reach the mid-to-upper 90s.
The changeup was working for him Thursday night, and he said it was the best he's ever felt with the pitch. It certainly caught veteran Todd Frazier by surprise:
Adbert Alzolay, Nasty 87mph Changeup. 😨 pic.twitter.com/KmrFm38nsZ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 21, 2019
On top of the physical attributes, Alzolay has drawn rave reviews from Cubs brass for his makeup and intangibles, of which the composure and maturity was on display during his debut. He's also been making use of the times he's not on a mound by watching and studying MLB video.
"During my time off — after the games down there in Triple-A or even in spring training starting last year — I've been watching a lot of videos from all those guys to see the way they work here in the big leagues," Alzolay said. "Watching different guys that have the same kind of stuff that I have — watching and learning from that. I think it will help."
He also watched video of himself from 2017 and realize that he was too slow last year, so worked to speed up his tempo this season.
Maddon believes life experience has helped mold Alzolay into the person and pitcher he is today, citing the 24-year-old's upbringing in Venezuela.
"He's a very mature young man," Maddon said. "...He slows things down. When you speak to him, he speaks clearly and slowly. I watch him on video and you get this sense of confidence when he throws the baseball. I think he knows exactly what he wants to do when he's out there, so he elicits confidence from that, also. He's just a very mature young man."
While Alzolay's debut is a source of excitement for the fanbase and everybody can dream on his tantalizing potential, his journey to the big leagues as a homegrown pitcher matters. This is a different situation than Kyle Hendricks or Carl Edwards Jr., since both players were drafted and partially developed in other organizations.
At a time when the Cubs have an aging — and expensive — pitching staff, they could really use a guy like Alzolay to come up to the majors and stick...especially if it's eventually in the rotation.
"If you're running the organization, it's a big deal," Maddon said. "When you're able to draft and develop or sign and develop players, yeah there's something to that. When you have them right out of the womb, man, there's a lot of investment in that — from the scouts to the development people to the big-league staff.
"But there's always a sense of pride of developing your own. That's just true. Whether there's a shortstop or a third baseman or whatever. And the fact that we've had a hard time developing pitchers that have arrived at the big-league level, yeah, it's good to get your feet on the ground with that and then try to recreate the template as you go along.
"I think everybody takes a strong sense of pride in watching his development."