DETROIT – Jake Burger was on a pregame Zoom Friday afternoon, as he has been numerous times over the past two seasons. But this one was different.
The No. 11 White Sox prospect, per MLB Pipeline, was sitting at Comerica Park, preparing to take on the Tigers and make his Major League debut. This call-up from Triple-A Charlotte represented the latest step in Burger’s cinematic-like journey.
Burger was selected 11th overall in the 2017 Draft by the White Sox, which was followed by two ruptured left Achilles, a bruised heel and then the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning he went three years without baseball prior to his stellar ’21 performance with the Knights in his first full professional season.
Friday night, he played third base and hit eighth for the American League Central leaders.
“Still taking it day by day, but it feels really good. It's truly cool and kind of a surreal feeling,” Burger said. “I'm still numb, you know? But I'm just taking it day by day, again, pitch by pitch, and just going to go out there and compete and have fun.
“You get that little adrenaline rush and it almost doesn't feel real. It still doesn't feel real. You work your entire life for this goal and it's a cool feeling. It's just the first steppingstone. There's more along the path.”
After such a long road to arrive on the big stage, Burger wasted little time making an impact. He doubled in the seventh inning of Friday's 8-2 win over the Tigers for his first Major League hit, then singled in the ninth to finish his debut 2-for-4.
While the story is a tremendous tale of perseverance, Burger is with the White Sox because he truly can help them win. It was a point made clear by general manager Rick Hahn during his Zoom call.
In 42 games and 185 plate appearances for the Knights this season, Burger has a .322/.368/.596 slash line with 10 home runs, 15 doubles and 36 RBIs. He has played 34 games at third base and four at second, giving him and the White Sox versatility during his big league time.
“He is someone who [assistant general manager/player development] Chris Getz has spent a fair amount of time over the last several weeks advocating for finding a way for him to get an opportunity in Chicago,” said Hahn of Burger. “He has, in the way we all prefer prospects to graduate to the big leagues, he has done so in a way that he basically forced the issue based on his performance.
“It’s a great success story. Not only for the kid but our scouting department and player development department.”
Burger’s promotion, along with outfielder Adam Eaton being reinstated from the 10-day injured list, came with designated hitter Yermín Mercedes being optioned to Charlotte. The White Sox probably aren’t sitting comfortably atop the AL Central without Mercedes’ .415/.455/.659 April slash line, which included an 8-for-8 start. But the White Sox need more positional versatility, breaking the news to Mercedes after Thursday’s victory over the Twins.
“We fully expect we will see him again at some point,” Hahn said. “He left here dedicated to getting his bat back on track. We’ll mix him in some behind the plate to get him re-acclimated with that over the next several weeks.”
“I think he was convinced he had to hit for more power and just came off the ball,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “I think the way he was being pitched happens to a lot of guys. The most difficult part about sending him out was the last week or two, it was starting to be clear again to him.”
As a St. Louis kid, Burger was in attendance at Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, when David Freese hit the walk-off home run to keep the Cardinals alive. Now, he will have the chance to play for La Russa, the manager of that Cardinals' World Series champion team 10 years ago, with his full family driving to Detroit to be in attendance.
“Every single day I get on that field, I’m really confident in myself. I think the last three years have definitely given me confidence,” Burger said during a Zoom earlier this week. “It changed me as a person, it matured me.
“It also changed me as a player. Having that confidence every single day has led to this success. I definitely feel like I belong. It feels good to be back in a clubhouse and around the guys again and seeing my buddies do well at the big league level as well. It’s just one of those things where confidence keeps growing over time.”
Tigers manager A.J. Hinch didn’t know much about Burger, but had praise for his tenacity.
“First off, congratulations to him, given what he's had to overcome,” Hinch said. “I don't care if it's our team or somebody else's team, that Achilles injury was real, and I just like good stories and guys that persevere, get back to the big leagues. And I hope that's the peak of his compliments that come from me this weekend.”