Wicks K's 9, makes Cubs history in 'unbelievable' debut

No. 10 prospect strikes out five Pirates in a row, wraps start with 15 consecutive outs

August 27th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- There were a number of potential stressors for rookie Jordan Wicks on the PNC Park mound on Saturday night. Not only was the lefty making his big league debut for the Cubs, but the team is in need of rotation help while in the thick of a postseason chase.

Then again, there is a reason why the North Siders called Wicks’ name.

“He's put in the work,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And we have confidence in his makeup and his skillset to call him up in this environment.”

In a 10-6 victory over the Pirates, Wicks backed up that belief with one of the better MLB debuts in the long, storied history of the franchise. The lefty racked up nine strikeouts in five innings, setting down the final 15 batters he faced in order before receiving a series of hugs and handshakes in the visitors’ dugout.

After the win, as fireworks popped for Pirates fans at the ballpark, Wicks made his way through the tunnel and into the locker room. Behind a closed door, cheers from his teammates could be heard as the group celebrated his first win on the Major League stage.

“I think in my dreams, I imagined that,” Wicks said of his day. “But I thought it was unbelievable.”

The Cubs envisioned Wicks as a faster riser when they used their first-round pick on the Kansas State southpaw in the 2021 MLB Draft, and it was easy to see why, as he produced a series of awkward swings with a polished, six-pitch arsenal. He led with his signature changeup, featuring it 27 times and generating nine whiffs on a dozen swings against the pitch.

“Man, what a fun night for him,” Ross said. “That’s as good as I’ve seen in a while from a young starter.”

And Wicks, ranked No. 10 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Prospects list for the Cubs, did all that after an initial dose of the debut jitters.

In the first inning, Ke’Bryan Hayes sent Wicks’ second pitch in the Majors out to left for a leadoff home run. Bryan Reynolds followed with a hard single up the middle and Andrew McCutchen drew a walk. After the lefty threw two pitches for balls to Connor Joe, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy walked out to the hill for a chat.

“I try to take as much of the stress, anxiety, pressure off their plate,” Hottovy said before the game about pitchers making debuts. “I really try to make it as laid-back as possible. We're going to go out and have fun tonight, you know?”

Whatever Hottovy said worked wonders.

“I think all the credit should go to the mound visit from Tommy Hottovy,” Ross deadpanned.

Wicks also said looking into the stands and seeing his parents, plus a host of friends and relatives, also helped him relax.

Wicks locked things in and struck out the next five batters in a row, becoming the first Cubs pitcher to pull off that feat in an MLB debut since at least 1920, per the Elias Sports Bureau. That ignited the run of 15 outs in a row, making Wicks also the first Cubs pitcher to set that many hitters down in order in a debut in the Expansion Era (since 1961).

When the smoke cleared, Wicks joined Dutch Ruether (1917), Mark Prior (2002) and Thomas Diamond (2010) as the only Cubs pitchers since at least 1901 to record nine or more strikeouts in an MLB debut. Prior and Diamond share the record with 10 punchouts apiece.

Wicks said Hottovy’s goal was simply to give him a chance to slow things down, while reiterating the plan of attack. From the moment Wicks arrived at the ballpark, Hottovy, Ross and the pitching group stressed the importance of leaning on what got him here.

“That was the big message today that I heard,” Wicks said. “Stick to what you do. They told me, and they just reminded me over and over again: ‘What you do is good enough. It's why you're here.’ And so that was a real calming message for me.”

So, Wicks leaned on that changeup that has baffled hitters since he was a kid. And from there, he worked in the four-seamer and sinker, while mixing in cutters, curves and a couple of sliders.

“I loved how he mixed,” Ross said. “He can just pitch. It just stands out.”

Chicago’s need for a rotation reinforcement arose out of two developments: All-Star Marcus Stroman (fractured right rib cartilage) going on the injured list without a clear timetable for return, and the Cubs opting to move struggling starter Drew Smyly into the bullpen.

Prior to this promotion, Wicks went 7-0 with a 3.55 ERA and 99 strikeouts against 32 walks in 91 1/3 innings this season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. His four most recent outings with Iowa featured a 2.29 ERA over 19 2/3 innings.

“He wouldn’t be up here if we thought he wasn’t ready for the moment, right?” Ross reiterated.