After shaking jitters, Foley lives out dream

Right-hander hits 2, throws scoreless frame in MLB debut

June 6th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter put an arm around as he made his mound visit in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. That’s how his Major League debut was going.

Foley hit two of his first three batters within his first seven pitches. His breaking ball wasn’t breaking all that much, and his two-seam fastball was being temperamental. Chicago wasn't hitting him hard, with an Andrew Vaughn ground ball for one out and a Nick Madrigal line drive for another. Even as Tim Anderson stepped to the plate, Foley’s toughest opponent arguably was himself.

“Yeah, adrenaline was super high,” Foley said. “I was surprisingly pretty calm throughout the game, but once that call came, the nerves spiked a little bit.”

Anderson fouled off four of Foley’s sinking fastballs at 96-97 mph, waiting for a mistake before Foley kicked it up a notch. His 99 mph heater induced a ground ball to finish Foley’s first big league inning.

It was one of the Tigers’ few bright spots Sunday. They struggled to hit Dylan Cease, who has thrown 17 1/3 scoreless innings against them since August 2020, and allowed three runs over five innings in his return from the injured list.

As Tigers efforts go, it wasn’t memorable. For Foley, it was unforgettable, because it was a long time in the making. It came five years after Foley was pitching for the Chatham Anglers in the Cape Cod Summer League, having gone undrafted following his junior season at Sacred Heart University.

His numbers weren’t great, with 10 hits and four walks over eight innings, but his upper-90s fastball caught scouts’ attention.

“I was definitely very surprised,” Foley said. “I had kind of already gotten over the fact that I wasn’t drafted, just ready to head back to school, didn’t really expect anything of the sort; any team to reach out. And when [the Tigers] did, it was a pretty unreal experience. Everything happened super quick.”

Within a couple of days of the Tigers expressing interest, they had a deal, and Foley was headed from summer ball in Chatham, Conn., down the road to the Tigers’ farm system, eventually down the road to their Class A NY-Penn League affiliate in Norwich.

From there, Foley’s career took off. He struck out 36 batters over 29 innings at then-Class A West Michigan, and his fastball approached triple digits, earning him a midseason promotion to Class A-Advanced Lakeland. Suddenly, he was Detroit’s next hard-throwing relief prospect.

Then came an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery.

“It was tough,” Foley said, “because I’d been throwing very well and had a lot of confidence and good motivation going forward. That was just a major setback, physically but mentally as well.”

Foley missed a year and a half before returning to Lakeland in 2019 with a 5.11 ERA in 43 innings. He was looking forward to his second year back with his fastball rejuvenated when the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the Minor League season.

Foley’s 2020 campaign consisted of work at the Tigers' alternate site in Toledo, followed by instructional ball. He was left off Detroit’s 40-man roster last winter, but he also went overlooked in the Rule 5 Draft, when teammate Will Vest went to Seattle.

Foley was a 25-year-old prospect with no work above Class A ball and no spot in Major League camp for Spring Training. The Tigers brought him to a couple of games, and both times he pitched scoreless innings against the Yankees in Tampa, Fla.

“He’s got a moving fastball,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Right-handers really don’t hit him very hard at all, and he can fill up the strike zone with 95-100 mph fastballs and a little slider. He opened some eyes.”

Foley missed the back half of camp in COVID-19 protocol. Still, he showed enough to open in Triple-A Toledo. The jump was big, but so was his fastball, and it played against more experienced hitters.

When ’s shoulder strain created a bullpen need, Detroit maneuvered its roster to promote Foley. Mud Hens manager Tom Prince called him into his office Saturday to sign documents for COVID-19 testing.

“They were getting on me and giving me a hard time and then they broke the news: You’re going to the big leagues,” Foley said. “And it was pretty emotional.”

Foley’s family had just enough time to travel from New York to Chicago, where Foley became the third player from Sacred Heart to play in the Majors. The second, Tigers infielder , had just been optioned to Toledo, but Hinch let him stay another day to watch his college teammate.

As the stadium emptied, Foley got a picture with Short, then with his parents and brother. His parents will follow him back to Detroit to watch the journey continue.

“It’s incredible, tough to put into words,” Foley said. “You work for this your whole life, and especially the last five years. It’s been a crazy journey up here.”