Campbell's arduous journey to Majors finishes with emotional debut moment

July 8th, 2023

HOUSTON -- Isaiah Campbell hasn’t exactly had the smoothest path to the Majors. So you certainly can’t blame the right-hander for taking a second to savor the moment before warming up and throwing his first pitch as a big leaguer.

“[I] walked out of the bullpen and kind of just stared into the stadium, stared into the crowd and just soaked it in,” Campbell said. “Then just got as locked in as I could.”

The Mariners’ No. 16 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, tossed a scoreless inning of relief Friday in his Major League debut in the Mariners’ 10-1 win over the Astros.

The 76th pick in the 2019 Draft, the former Arkansas ace was supposed to follow in a long line of successful Mariners starting pitching prospects. But as Seattle stockpiled power college arms that rose through the ranks quickly -- including fellow 2019 Draft pick, first-rounder George Kirby -- Campbell struggled to do the same.

He didn’t pitch the summer after he was drafted due to a heavy college workload. COVID took away the Minor League season the following year. And in 2021, surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow limited the right-hander to just 19 1/3 innings.

His start to the following 2022 season didn’t fare much better.

“The baseball part wasn’t going well,” Campbell said Thursday. “I got hurt again. I was on the IL and just struggling as a starter, couldn’t hold velo for a long time. I was down pretty hard in life, and that was the one time where I kind of started questioning everything.”

Campbell called the stint on the injured list, due to lingering right elbow issues, a “low point” in his life. He credits his support system -- including his fiancée, Kiley Kipper, for getting him through. His mom Deanna made a long road trip to High-A Everett in Washington to help take his mind off baseball.

Then in June 2022, the Mariners sat down with the pitcher and suggested a move to the bullpen. Campbell agreed.

“I think it was the best thing for my career,” Campbell said. “I dealt with so many injuries, and I think so much of it was just the amount of pitches and throwing so much. So when they came to me with that, I was fully 100% on board and just ready to hit it running.”

The move to the bullpen helped Campbell recover the velocity he had lost to a heavy workload and the elbow injuries. He also eliminated his curveball and changeup, focusing solely on his slider and rejuvenated four-seamer.

And for his first Major League strikeout, the right-hander reared back and hurled a high 96 mph fastball -- a pitch that he wasn’t able to consistently throw as a starter just a year earlier.

Kirby and fellow young pitchers Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo were ecstatic in the dugout, jumping up and down as Campbell strolled back from the mound. His friends and family were just as loud in the stands a few rows back.

When Campbell had initially heard about his callup from Double-A Arkansas manager Mike Freeman -- who told the 25-year-old to cancel his tee time for the All-Star break -- it was right after a game in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that his parents had attended.

He FaceTimed his parents, Deanna and his dad Parry, as they were driving back from the ballpark. Parry -- whose service in the Air Force led the family to Portugal, where Isaiah was born, becoming the first known Portuguese-born MLB player -- screamed. Deanna cried.

And when Kipper arrived at the Houston hotel before the series vs. the Astros where Campbell would debut, the realization of “a dream come true” set in for Campbell and his fiancée.

“Last night, we were crying when she got here just because of how much from last year [to] this year, things changed,” Campbell said. “It's just tears of excitement and joy that we made it. It was our journey together.”