CHICAGO -- Brandon Hughes had a choice to make three years ago. At the end of Spring Training, he was told there would be no at-bats for the outfielder in the farm system. The Cubs were going to release him -- unless he was willing to try his hand at pitching.
"I chose to become a pitcher," Hughes said.
On Tuesday night, Hughes found himself on the mound at Wrigley Field, where his parents watched from the stands with a host of family and friends. The lefty then put on a show in his Major League debut, dominating a string of Pirates hitters in a 7-0 romp for the Cubs.
What began as a career-saving project at the Cubs' complex in Arizona in 2019 culminated in a history-making performance for Hughes. He became the first pitcher in the Modern Era to record five or more outs in an MLB debut with each out coming via strikeout, per STATS.
"I don't even know how to react to that. That's kind of wild," Hughes said. "My stuff was working today. They were swinging and missing at it. That's a wild stat."
By striking out five of the six batters he was credited with facing, Hughes became just the fourth Cubs reliever since 1901 to have at least five strikeouts in an MLB debut. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was the first Cubs player in the Expansion Era (since 1961) to strike out the first four batters of his career.
Following an injury to Daniel Norris, Hughes took over in the sixth, inheriting a 2-0 count to Josh VanMeter. The lefty issued a walk (charged to Norris), but Hughes then struck out Bryan Reynolds and Ben Gamel to escape the inning.
As he was approaching the dugout, Hughes slapped catcher Willson Contreras in the chest.
"He got fired up," Contreras said with a smile. "I was trying to calm him down, but he was like, 'Hey Willy, let's go! I was like, 'OK, this guy's ready.' It was funny. It was funny. He's got good stuff."
In the spring of '19, it was former director of player development Jaron Madison (now a special assistant to the president and GM) who delivered the career ultimatum to Hughes. At the same time, Cubs reliever Scott Effross was working on lowering his arm slot as a Minor Leaguer.
Hughes and Effross were beginning their respective transitions together in Arizona. Effross said they worked in golf outings every five days or so to break things up, but the pitchers also used their time to watch bullpen sessions and discuss their progress.
Now, Effross and Hughes are teammates in the Cubs' bullpen.
"It's an insane kind of timeline for him," Effross said. "He's done it so quickly and been so dominant, that it's hard to kind of put into words for watching from afar. I'm super impressed and really happy for him."
Hughes, 26, got the word late Monday night from Triple-A Iowa manager Marty Pevey that he was heading to the Cubs, who officially selected the reliever's contract on Tuesday. In 10 appearances this season between Double-A and Triple-A, Hughes allowed zero runs in 16 2/3 innings, with 22 strikeouts, three walks and five hits allowed.
Hughes features a sinker (averaging 92.8 mph in Tuesday's outing), plus a changeup and a slider that has more sweeping action (new this year). That pitch mix worked just as well in the big leagues. All five strikeouts were on sliders, and Hughes generated seven whiffs on 12 swings.
"Brandon was impressive," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He kept the lefties off balance. There's real deception. Not a lot of good swings off him. I thought it was really impressive what he showed tonight."
Shortly before Hughes' first career strikeout, the Wrigley Field organist played a few bars from the Michigan State fight song. Hughes was an outfielder for the Spartans and had a .304 average before being picked by the Cubs in the 16th round of the 2017 MLB Draft.
In his last season at MSU, Hughes hit .330 with an .855 OPS and 30 stolen bases. That success did not carry over into the professional ranks, but Hughes joked with Ross that he can still play some outfield, if needed.
Hughes looked just fine on the mound.
"Someone who was a position player," said Jared Banner, the Cubs' vice president of player development, "who put in work with our pitching group and turned himself into a big leaguer the way he has, it's really remarkable. You don't see it very often, and we're all very proud of him."
Inside Hughes' new locker after Tuesday's game was the baseball from his first strikeout. He said he plans on giving it to his mom.
"She's always been collecting those," he said. "All the home runs that I used to hit. All the strikeouts that I do now."