K of Pujols just one of Cubs rookie Assad's thrills

August 24th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Cubs rookie Javier Assad smiled when Albert Pujols' name came up in his first career press conference at Wrigley Field. Pujols is on a path to baseball's Hall of Fame, but Assad can now remember the slugger as the first player he struck out in the Major Leagues.

"It's something that I never would have imagined," Assad said via team translator Will Nadal on Tuesday afternoon. "Pujols is a great player. We all know the historic player that he is. I was 3 years old when he debuted.

"So I never would've imagined that I would've been facing him -- let alone getting that strikeout."

Assad's MLB debut was the highlight of a doubleheader split with the Cardinals on Tuesday. The rookie righty set the tone in a 2-0 win for the Cubs in Game 1, and then watched St. Louis respond with a 13-3 rout in the nightcap. Assad's strikeout of Pujols arrived in the second inning via a sinker that flirted with the outside edge. Whether it was a bit off the plate is irrelevant now. Assad said that baseball is going in a protective case for safe keeping.

Assad is the latest in a line of young arms to climb to the Major Leagues this season for the Cubs, who have spent the past few years building and developing a deep inventory of pitching prospects. His debut lasted four-plus innings, but it did provide a snapshot of what has helped him reach this level.

"They definitely don't lack talent here," Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said of the arms he has witnessed in his first season with the ballclub. "The program and the way they're building guys up, they all come with at least two power pitches.

"And then you got a guy like Assad today who can manipulate the zone with all four [pitches]. They definitely have a good presence."

In fact, Statcast registered six pitches for the 25-year-old Assad. The right-hander relied mostly on cutters, four-seamers and sinkers, while working in a curve, slider and changeup. Assad issued four walks, but he held St. Louis to an 0-for-6 showing with runners in scoring position.

Jared Banner, the Cubs' vice president of player development, pointed out that an increase in velocity by Assad "raised his ceiling a bit" this year. Assad credited a revamped strength training program and getting high-leverage experience in the Mexican Winter League for helping him take a significant step forward this year.

"It's fun," Banner said of having another young arm reach the Majors. "I think it's a testament to all the staff down below in the Minor Leagues working hard. They don't get some of the recognition, but on days like [Tuesday], they get to turn on their TV and feel really proud of the work they put in."

Assad had 111 strikeouts against 35 walks with a 2.66 ERA in 108 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A before his debut. Against the Cardinals, he reached 95 mph, while sitting around 92-93 mph. Assad generated nine swings and misses, and had three strikeouts overall.

When Assad took the mound in the first, he became the 33rd player to make their Cubs debut this season, and the 11th player to debut in the Majors with Chicago in 2022. Two of the others on that short list -- relievers Erich Uelmen and Brandon Hughes -- worked the last 2 1/3 innings to seal the win. In Game 2, righty Nicholas Padilla, who was promoted from Triple-A as the 27th man for the day, brought the MLB debut list up to a dozen with 1 2/3 innings in relief.

"The fun part is hearing about the arms and them coming up and having success, right?" Cubs manager David Ross said. "I think you hear about a lot of players that are doing really well in our Minor League system, and I think that's really exciting."

Assad said he was heading out to breakfast with his wife on Monday when he started getting notifications on his phone about being promoted to the Cubs. He was able to have her at the game on Tuesday, along with his parents.

"They've been there since the beginning," Assad said. "And just being out there and being able to perform, and have them come out and see this, it's something that's really gratifying and makes me feel happy."

Assad also said he will not forget the moment he walked off the mound.

With each step Assad took, the cheers inside Wrigley Field grew louder as the fans offered him a standing ovation. He jumped over the chalk line and then received a line of handshakes from teammates, coaches and staff inside the dugout.

"It was fantastic," Assad said. "It's something that I really, I can't put into words."