As he tried to settle the inevitable nerves before his Major League debut Saturday, Rockies left-handed reliever Lucas Gilbreath listened as manager Bud Black told him the story of his uneasy entry into the big leagues.
Pitching for the Mariners on Sept. 5, 1981, against the Red Sox, Black gave up a Rick Miller RBI single, then departed. The next day, he walked three of the six Boston hitters he faced.
Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster also told Gilbreath about debuts gone wrong, even though careers went well after that.
Now, Gilbreath has a story to tell. Josh Rojas sent Gilbreath’s first Major League pitch over the fence and into the pool beyond the right-field wall at Chase Field. Gilbreath, though, needed only five more pitches -- all but one of them a strike -- to complete the ninth inning of a 14-6 Rockies victory over the D-backs on Saturday night.
“I went in and said, ‘I think I have a story to one-up both of you guys now,’” Gilbreath said Sunday morning.
Why not get that first home run out of the way quickly? Everything else over the past year has come at a whirlwind pace for Gilbreath, who was born in Westminster, Colo., went to Legacy High in Broomfield and then attended the University of Minnesota (which, under pitching coach Ty McDevitt, has successfully recruited players like Gilbreath, who hail from under-recruited colder climates).
Gilbreath, the Rockies' No. 26 prospect per MLB Pipeline, went 5-10 with a 5.81 ERA in 28 starts for Class A Advanced Lancaster in 2019. But he made the most of '20 (when there was no Minor League season) by working with Frank Gonzales, a longtime Denver-area high school coach who has worked in the Rockies’ Minor League system in recent years. This year, Gonzales will be at Double-A Hartford. But Gilbreath made dramatic progress with his pitch mix, and the Rockies moved him to the bullpen.
Solid work in the fall instructional program, when he faced other teams as a reliever and demonstrated an uptick in fastball velocity, and in Spring Training put Gilbreath on the radar. Gilbreath is most comfortable with his fastball-sider combination, and he is developing a split-finger changeup.
The way Gilbreath put the homer he allowed into perspective is consistent with the maturity he has shown while handling his speedy rise to the Majors.
“What I've learned from Lucas getting to know him a little bit in Spring Training ... is just the overall broadness of his perspective of where he is in his career,” Black said. “He’s a bright kid ... and just seems to have a poise and a calmness about him.
“But yet, there's a competitor in there. He’s getting after it, but his understanding of where he is is a real positive and advantage for him.”
Gilbreath grew up a Rockies fan, playing at Larry Walker Field in Thornton, Colo., and his father once pulled him out of elementary school to watch a Rockies home opener. He split time between baseball and hockey, with dreams of following the footsteps of Stanley Cup-winning heroes Joe Sakic and Rob Blake, before coaches impressed upon him that he had a bright baseball future. His formative years were spent in the non-profit Broomfield Baseball League, Legacy and the Rockies’ Scout Team Program.
So even sitting in the bullpen for eight innings before appearing was a heady time.
“I was sitting next to [veteran reliever Jhoulys] Chacín in the bullpen, and I was talking to him the whole time,” Gilbreath said. “I could remember when I was younger just watching him pitch. I was asking him about all the guys he played with, because I remember all those teams. I used to go to quite a few games, and sometimes, we’d get seats behind the dugout, near the dugout.”
But when Saturday's game became a blowout, the time for memories ended. As others warned Gilbreath, breathing ceases to be involuntary when dreams come true. After the homer, he gave up a one-out hit, but he induced a Carson Kelly double-play grounder to complete the inning.
“I was trying to attack the zone, attack hitters -- especially in a game like that,” Gilbreath said. “I trust the defense back there.”
Gilbreath kept the baseball from the final outs. The one from his first pitch was a little wet.
“I wish I could have gotten that ball,” Gilbreath said with the chuckle.
Black said that right-hander Antonio Senzatela, who went on the 10-day injured list with a mild right groin strain on Saturday, is "getting better each and every day," and that he's "encouraged by his progress over the last 48 hours."