Chicago Cubs' Hultzen and his long road to the majors
Even from the far reaches of Miller Park, it was obvious how Danny Hultzen was keeping his nerve Sunday during his major-league debut.
"Deep breaths," he said with a smile Sunday after pitching 1 inning of relief for the Chicago Cubs, striking out the final three batters he faced after he hit the Milwaukee Brewers' Christian Yelich and gave up a single to Ben Gamel.
One could hardly blame Hultzen for being keyed up and breathing deeply after he made a big-league debut many thought would never come.
The 29-year-old left-hander has overcome injuries -- mostly to his shoulder -- that forced him to miss all of the 2014 and 2017 seasons.
The expectations were high for Hultzen, the second overall draft pick of the Seattle Mariners out of the University of Virginia in 2011. He was taken ahead of such notables as current Cubs teammate Javier Baez, Trevor Bauer, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, George Springer and Sonny Gray.
But until this season, when he pitched in 14 games for the Cubs' Class AAA Iowa affiliate, his season high in appearances was 13, back in 2012.
From there, it was one injury and one setback after another.
"The mental grind has been life-changing, honestly," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's been extremely beneficial. I've grown a lot. I've learned a lot about myself. To go along with that, there are times that are extremely difficult."
There was also some humor in it.
"I tell a story about playing catch with the (athletic) trainer back at UVA when I was finishing up school," he said. "He's a good athlete, but he's not a baseball player by any means. We were playing catch one day. And he was just mowing me.
"I was throwing everything as hard as I could, and he was catching it nice and easy. We would get back to long distance, and he'd be nice and easy tossing it. I'd have to rear back and get it to him. I was thinking, 'Geez, no offense to the trainer, I love him to death. But if he's outthrowing me right now, this could be tough.'
"Little things like that, that happened along the road, you really have to find it within yourself to believe in yourself that you could do it."
Speaking of school, Hultzen made good use of his time, earning his degree in history during the 2016-17 academic year, knowing that he would miss the 2017 baseball season.
"I went back to school after my second surgery," he said. "I figured that was good timing to go back to school and finish up and work with the baseball team and honestly, just kind of get away from professional baseball for a little bit. That was wonderful for me, just to be in a different place outside of the training room, or at least the Arizona training rooms that I've been in and just reassess (if) I really, really wanted to do this. Get away from it a little bit and just kind of hit the reset button.
"It was interesting to go back to school and having to relearn all that stuff. Going back in class and being around all these super smart guys and girls. I was sitting there like, 'Don't embarrass me. Don't call on me. I'm going to say something stupid.' It was a good time to go back to school."
Most athletes, understandably, would have packed it in after so many injuries. Asked how many times he thought about quitting, Hultzen answered without hesitation.
"Zero," he said. "I never thought that I was done. Retiring, getting away, was never in my mind. Honestly, the hard times were not, 'I can't do this anymore. I don't want to do this anymore.' It was, 'How am I going to get through this? How can I get past this?' But never in my mind did I want to say, 'I'm done with this.'
"I never want to look back and say I could have done more, I could have done something different."
Hultzen signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs in the spring of 2018. He appeared in 10 games last year between Mesa and Iowa before battling nagging injuries this season and finally getting the call-up last Saturday.
"They have been absolutely wonderful," he said of the Cubs. "I'm forever thankful for this organization for just giving me a shot in the first place, a guy with my injury history and not having pitched a whole lot over the past years, to take a risk on me, I'll be forever thankful for this organization."