ATLANTA -- For T.J. Zeuch, the journey to the big leagues began 18 years ago, when the right-hander was just 6 years old and getting into the game of baseball under the tutelage of his father, Tim.
From the sandlots around Warren County, Ohio -- just over 20 miles from Cincinnati -- Zeuch progressed into a standout hurler at Mason High School, where his dad handed the reins over to the head coach, Curt Bly. From there, the young pitcher moved on to the University of Pittsburgh, where Zeuch turned himself into the first-round Draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2016.
All of the time and effort put in throughout that journey came to fruition in Toronto’s eventual 7-2 loss at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, when the 24-year-old righty made his Major League debut against the National League East-leading Braves, coming on in the second inning and throwing four frames of two-run baseball.
“It was amazing,” Zeuch said. “This is something I’ve wanted since I was a kid. It’s been 18 years of hard work and dedication paid off. It was a very exciting night. I was able to have my family come down and watch, and it was a really special night.”
Both Tim and his wife Lisa were on hand for their son’s debut -- leaving home at seven o’clock Tuesday morning for the eight-hour drive to Georgia -- along with Zeuch’s wife, younger sister, former college roommate and Bly, who came to see his high-school pupil become the first Mason graduate to make it to the Majors since 1897.
“I never forget where I came from,” Zeuch said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Mason baseball program. They definitely helped mold me into the player and the man that I am today, so I feel a great sense of pride in being the first [in so long].”
“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be,” Zeuch said. “I thought my heart would be racing the whole time. I just sat back, took in the moment and took a few deep breaths every once in a while, just to keep myself calm. I was a little anxious when I got out there for my first inning and then once I got my first out, it was smooth sailing from there.”
At least one member of the crowd of 25,427 was more nervous -- and even more excited -- for Zeuch than he was himself.
“Definitely my dad,” Zeuch said. “He’s been along the whole ride obviously, both of my parents, but he’s been my coach from Day 1 all the way up until high school, when he let the reins go to other people. He’s been right there by my side coaching me my whole life, so he was more nervous than I was.”
Zeuch entered the contest with Toronto trailing by two runs after the opening frame. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound hurler limited the damage and kept his squad in the game over his four innings, allowing three hits, two walks -- both scoring on a fifth-inning double from former Blue Jays infielder Josh Donaldson -- and striking out four.
“He did absolutely amazing on the mound for his debut,” said catcher Beau Taylor, who was also making his Toronto debut in the game. “You have all that excitement, and it was my job to try to compose him a little bit. That was awesome. It was fun to watch, too. Being behind the plate, he did well. He gave up the two runs, he made one mistake and got behind a couple batters, but other than that he did great.”
“I set the expectations to not give up any runs, obviously I didn’t fulfill that,” Zeuch said. “I made a poor pitch to Donaldson there, and he did what MVPs do -- he hammered it. I thought if I could have made a better pitch there, I would have put myself in a better situation to accomplish that goal but that’s part of baseball, it’s part of learning, part of growing. I’ve just got to be better next time.”
Added Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo: “He competed well. He threw strikes, and he was facing a pretty good lineup. … He was probably a little bit nervous at the beginning of course, but then he settled down and he pitched well.”
In his Minor League career, Zeuch amassed a 3.52 ERA over 342 2/3 innings in four seasons. Toronto’s No. 16 prospect made 13 starts for the Bisons this season and posted a 4.04 ERA over 78 innings with 32 walks and 39 strikeouts for Buffalo. He became the 37th different pitcher used by the Blue Jays in 2019, setting a new franchise record.
“He was just attacking hitters,” Taylor said. “He wasn’t fazed by who was in the box at all. It was like his own little island on that mound, and he was in his own zone. He was trying to calm himself down, because you would see a couple pitches that he would sail, and that’s not him. He was high energy at the time, but it was incredible what he did.”