Pirates prospect has a debut to remember

Tucker hits game-winning homer for first career hit

April 21st, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Cole Tucker arrived at PNC Park on Saturday morning to find a No. 3 jersey hanging in his new locker in the Pirates’ clubhouse. That uniform was last worn by veteran utility man Sean Rodriguez, who sent a message to Tucker when word surfaced that the 22-year-old shortstop was headed to the big leagues: “And so it begins.”

Tucker couldn’t have scripted a better debut. As storm clouds gathered over the city and lightning struck in the distance, the former first-round pick blasted a tie-breaking two-run homer to center field to earn his first Major League hit, homer and curtain call just before the Pirates’ 3-1 win over the Giants was called after five innings due to rain.

Not bad for a first impression, right?

“I’ll never forget today as long as I live,” Tucker said. “Just being welcomed and included and being here wearing a big league uniform and winning a baseball game, this is the coolest day of my life.”

Tucker didn’t sleep after he and Bryan Reynolds were called up late Friday night. The Pirates No. 5 prospect had to step out of the batter’s box in the fifth inning after seeing a lightning bolt outside the ballpark. But Tucker, as upbeat and energetic as they come, wasn’t going to let a little fatigue -- or a little inclement weather -- ruin the day he’d been waiting for since the second grade.

Tucker clubbed a 91.3-mph sinker from left-hander Derek Holland a projected 431 feet into the bushes in front of the batter’s eye. According to Statcast, the ball came off his bat at 104.4 mph. He is the first Pirates player to homer in his Major League debut since Starling Marte launched the first pitch he saw out of the ballpark on July 26, 2012.

“I missed a little bit more over the middle of the plate,” Holland said. “But congrats to him. First Major League homer.”

Tucker’s parents, Jackie and Erin, celebrated in the stands, high-fiving anyone sitting nearby, while Tucker trotted around the bases. He kept his cool as he rounded first and second, then he saw third-base coach Joey Cora, his teammates celebrating in the dugout and the crowd cheering him on. As Tucker crossed home plate, he flashed the “I love you” hand sign toward his parents.

“That’s always been our thing whenever something cool happens or you’re saying hello or goodbye, we throw that,” Tucker said. “So to be able to do that in PNC Park was pretty dope.”

He shouted and high-fived his teammates and slammed his helmet onto the dugout floor as the crowd continued to cheer. Tucker stepped out of the dugout for the first curtain call of his life, raised both arms then thumped his hand over his heart to acknowledge the fans who might quickly come to love the spirited shortstop.

“I might never do that again in my life,” Tucker said. “But to say that I did that -- and for my family to be here to see that, and to introduce myself to the city and this club in that fashion -- is, like, storybook.”

Jung Ho Kang, who homered in the fourth inning, struck out to end the fifth and the game immediately went into a delay due to lightning in the area. About an hour and a half into the delay, Tucker -- still in full uniform -- emerged from the steps by the Pirates’ dugout to see his younger brother, shake hands and take photos with the few fans still braving the pouring rain.

When the game was finally called by Major League Baseball after a three-hour and eight-minute delay, the Pirates doused Tucker with baby powder, soda and whatever else they could find. He got back to his locker to find 510 unread text messages on his phone. Somebody edited a photo with Tucker on top of one of the statue plinths outside PNC Park, printed it and hung it above his locker.

“That’s obviously insane,” Tucker said, laughing. “I don’t know who did that, but that’s hilarious.”

Right-hander Jameson Taillon, a former first-round pick and top prospect like Tucker, had his start cut short by the delay. Taillon picked up his first win of the season thanks to Tucker, holding the Giants to four hits and a walk while striking out three. Pittsburgh’s rotation now owns a National League-best 1.96 ERA after 18 games.

The Pirates called up Tucker on Saturday because they needed a shortstop and felt he was their best option. But they did so with confidence in part because of how they’ve seen the switch-hitter’s power improve since they selected him as a skinny 17-year-old with the 24th overall pick in the 2014 Draft.

Tucker hit only two homers in each of his first three Minor League seasons, and he hit only six in 2017 and five last season. Then Tucker went deep three times in his first 13 games for Triple-A Indianapolis this season and blasted a ball out to center in only his third Major League at-bat.

“It’s a special day. It’s a fantastic day,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before the game. “What other job, employment do you get where your first day of work, your mom and dad can come watch you? Think about it. It’s pretty unique. He’s a guy that we’ve watched grow up right in front of us.”

And this was only the beginning.