How Alec Mills went from college walk-on to throwing a no-hitter for the Cubs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Cubs pitcher Alec Mills is swarmed by teammates after throwing a no-hitter Sunday in Milwaukee.

    Cubs pitcher Alec Mills is swarmed by teammates after throwing a no-hitter Sunday in Milwaukee. Associated Press

  • Bubba Cates was Alec Mills' coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

    Bubba Cates was Alec Mills' coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin. Courtesy of Bubba Cates

 
 
Updated 9/15/2020 5:21 AM

Any time Alec Mills starts on the mound for the Chicago Cubs, former Tennessee-Martin head baseball coach Bubba Cates makes sure to follow along.

So Cates tuned in to the first few innings of the Cubs-Brewers game Sunday and saw that Mills -- who pitched for Cates from 2010 to 2012 -- was off to a good start, allowing no hits and walking just one batter.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Putting the game on the back burner, Cates got involved with planning a math lesson for his high school students.

When he checked back in, the Cubs were crushing the Brewers and Mills still had not allowed a hit.

Same thing after seven innings. And after eight.

But then Cates had to jump in the car to go to a meeting, making him wonder if he would be able to catch the dramatic ending.

"By the time I got there, it was in the ninth," Cates said. "So I got it pulled up on the computer and did get to see the last two outs and the celebration afterward. Pretty special."

Just about as special as Mills' career, which took off with Cates a decade ago.

Walking on

Mills grew up in Clarksville, Tenn., the fifth biggest city in the state. After a successful high school career, he arrived at UT Martin, saw some guys throwing on the baseball field and wondered if he had what it took to compete at that level.

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So he contacted Cates and asked for a tryout. Cates agreed, then asked a former player who recruited kids from Clarksville if he knew anything about Mills.

"He said, 'No. I've never heard of him,' " Cates said. "I thought that was kind of unusual. But he came out and had a good, loose arm and some tightness with his curveball. So you could tell he had a chance to be a good college pitcher if he developed a little bit -- and he did."

Mills was mostly a reliever in his first two years, appearing in 23 games as a freshman and a school-record 30 as a sophomore.

"He was a good worker and seemed like he was intent on doing something," Cates said. "I don't know if he knew that he had a chance to be a big leaguer, but after he threw a little in college -- especially in the summer -- he could see how he compared with some other people in different parts of the country."

The summer after his sophomore season, Mills really started coming into his own and was named the opening-day starter in 2012. That game was at No. 34-ranked Georgia Southern with a bevy of major league scouts in the stands.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"One of their pitchers was projected to be a high-round pick," said Cates, who coached at UT Martin from 1999 to 2013. "There must have been a major league scout from every club and he really threw a good ballgame. ...

"He really showed up that day -- really matured. The guy that was scouting director for the major league scouting bureau came by and talked to me and said, 'Man your guy did a really good job.'

"So we knew he had a chance then because this is a guy who sees a lot of people."

Mills started 14 games as a junior, going 4-6 with a 3.94 ERA. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft and began his pro career in rookie ball with the Idaho Falls Chukars.

Bumpy road

Mills' career hit a speed bump when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2013 and he also lost a big chunk of the 2017 season due to injuries after being traded to the Cubs. He spent most of his time at Iowa in Triple-A the last two seasons, then came into this season with a chance to earn a permanent spot on the roster.

Spring training was cut short due to the coronavirus and when the Cubs reconvened to start this 60-game campaign, news broke that Jose Quintana couldn't pitch due to nerve damage in his left thumb.

That opened up a spot in the rotation, which Mills has done his best to fill.

The 28-year-old got off to a great start -- allowing 2 runs and 2 hits at Cincinnati July 28, and no runs on 3 hits in 7 innings vs. Kansas City six days later.

His next five starts were mostly tough ones, though, as he went 1-3 with a 7.66 ERA.

But he didn't panic, kept working and found his groove again in a 3-0 victory vs. Cincinnati Sept. 8.

"It's so easy to get away from yourself when things aren't working," said Mills, who is now 5-3 with a 3.93 ERA. "You really start searching to make things different, to make yourself better.

"But ... a lot of times that makes things worse. I just had to take a step back and watch some things and talk with everybody and really figure out what was happening differently and how I could attack and get back to being myself."

Then came Sunday, when Mills made history in Milwaukee, becoming just the 16th pitcher in Cubs history to throw a no-hitter. Cates' phone started blowing up in the sixth inning, which was no surprise to the veteran coach.

"He was a great teammate," Cates said. "I shared with him in a text that I thought it was pretty neat that I was getting messages from people that were teammates of his in college saying, 'Hey, did you see what's going on?' " 

Mills' muted -- almost nonchalant -- reaction to the amazing feat probably shocked quite a few who were watching.

But Cates was not one of them.

"I'm watching his reaction and a lot of guys would be going bonkers," Cates said. "But that wasn't him. He's just a real humble guy.

"He recognized that he's just happy to be there and helping the team. He was probably as excited about the win -- and the shutout -- as he was the no-hitter.

"How special is that?"

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