Roycroft vows to bounce back after nerves spoil hometown debut

June 15th, 2024

CHICAGO -- A native of Villa Park, Ill., with roughly a dozen family and friends in the crowd, Cardinals reliever Chris Roycroft fully assumed that his familiarity with Wrigley Field -- a place where he had seen more than a dozen games as a baseball-loving kid -- would help him combat the swirl of emotions he was bound to face once toeing the rubber.

What the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Roycroft underestimated was the magnitude of the moment of being the singular focus of the action at Wrigley Field, instead of having the anonymity of being among the 40,088 fans in attendance. Suddenly, he had to remind himself to breathe, and those gulps of air helped him push down the “butterflies” that swarmed inside of him.

“It’s a lot different on this side [as a pitcher instead of being a fan], hearing the cheers, boos and all the chaos,” admitted Roycroft, who was on the mound when the Cubs scored two fourth-inning runs that propelled them to a 5-1 defeat of the rival Cardinals. “But it was still a really special moment, for sure.

“I was just trying to breathe and, really, it was a lot. I kind of got sped up a little bit, I gave up a couple of bloop hits and I should have made a play that needs to be made. That’s pretty much the gist of it, and I’ve got to stay in the zone a little bit more.”

A day after beating the Cubs 3-0 to move to .500 for the seventh time this season, the Cardinals missed out on a chance to notch a winning record for the first time since they were 5-4 on April 6. A 19-10 stretch from May 12 through Friday -- tied with the Phillies for the National League’s best record during that period -- got the Cardinals back into the race. On Sunday, the Redbirds will go for their fourth win of the season over the Cubs, one shy of the number of victories they had against their bitter rivals in all of 2023.

It’s easy to understand how Roycroft was overcome by emotions on Saturday considering the against-all-odds, underdog journey that he had to travel to get to the mound at Wrigley Field. A former basketball player and pitcher at Division III Aurora University, Roycroft went undrafted and had to work his way up through baseball’s back channels to even put himself in front of scouts. It was on one trip to St. Louis -- while he was pitching for the Joliet Slammers of the Frontier League -- that he pressed his face against the iron gates outside of Busch Stadium and dreamed of being a big-league pitcher.

Striking out 24 hitters in 16 2/3 innings in 2022 helped Roycroft get signed by the Cardinals, where he methodically worked his way through their farm system to earn an MLB call-up on May 6.

The hard-throwing right-hander’s MLB debut came a night later, and it was a highly memorable one for the family members in attendance at Busch Stadium. After fanning Mets superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor for his first big league strikeout, Pete Alonso took him deep for a home run. Roycroft showed what he was made of by steadying himself and striking out Harrison Bader and getting Brett Baty to ground out.

Roycroft said, in many ways, his first time pitching in Chicago matched the nerves and excitement he felt in his MLB debut. On Saturday, he relieved starter Andre Pallante in the fourth inning and failed to field a Nico Hoerner tapper in front of him for an error and Chicago’s first run. Another tapper -- this time from Dansby Swanson -- plated the go-ahead run for the Cubs.

“It’s frustrating, but that’s part of the game,” Roycroft said of the Cubs scoring twice off two balls that went approximately 10 feet combined. “It’s not about changing anything, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was weak contact and I’m fine with it. It’s just about sticking to the plan.”

Added Pallante, who struck out four in 3 1/3 innings of work: “[Roycroft] obviously doesn’t love what happened, but he understands that’s going to happen with ground-ball guys. It’s even worse when it happens in front of you [with dribblers].”

Roycroft got out of the fourth, but three straight walks in the fifth chased him from the game.

Nerves undoubtedly played into his wildness. That won’t happen the next time, Roycroft promised, even if it’s on Sunday back at Wrigley Field.

“This was kind of like my debut where I experienced those highs and lows, and I’m actually better at bouncing back and being able to respond to a bad outing quicker,” Roycroft said. “I’ll be ready to go tomorrow, and I’ll have a chip on my shoulder.”