It wasn’t long ago that Cubs pitcher Matt Swarmer found himself pitching in an adult baseball league with players ranging from 18 to 40 years old.
“I was facing guys that had no hair,” Swarmer said. “I was just trying to find anywhere to play or find live hitters.
“It was definitely different.”
Swarmer’s 2020 was certainly unique, though in some ways not unlike other players who were forced to find alternate ways to stay on top of their game after the minor-league season was canceled due to COVID-19.
What is unique is Swarmer’s 2020 experience is just one example of the perseverance he’s exhibited in an inspiring road to the major leagues — which led him to his big-league debut on Monday.
The latest debut by a homegrown Cubs pitcher.
Swarmer threw a quality start, holding the Brewers to one earned run in six innings while striking out six, in a 7-6 loss.
“It’s definitely been a battle,” Swarmer said of his journey.
Swarmer, 28, was the Cubs’ 19th round pick in 2016 out of Kutztown University, a Division II program in Pennsylvania.
By 2018, he was the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year, and he reached Triple-A Iowa a year later — only to finish with a 5.65 ERA in 27 games (25 starts) that season.
He worked on adjustments over the ensuing offseason, including to his slider grip, but didn’t get a chance to put them into effect. The minor-league season was canceled.
That led him to the adult baseball league, where he filmed his outings and sent them to his pitching coaches for feedback, also posting some on Instagram.
One is fittingly captioned, “Always grinding.”
Swarmer pitched in the adult league to get reps amid strange circumstances. But it’s also an example of the mentality he's carried throughout his baseball career.
“You just have to have a mindset, like each day you're trying to get better at something.” Swarmer said. “I had a good ’18 season but in ’19 got roughed up.
“I had to look at my flaws and try to build on those and get better. Each time we go in the pen, I always try to work on what I made mistakes on in the game and then capitalize my next start.”
Swarmer was better in 2021 than 2019, and he’s pitched well with Iowa this season (2.08 ERA, nine games/five starts).
His first big-league outing looked a lot like his minor league ones — according to the guy who’s been behind the plate for Swarmer outings countless times in recent years.
“He did the same thing he does in the minors,” said P.J. Higgins, who’s been teammates with Swarmer in the minors for the last couple years. “Go out there and throw six innings, grind through the game.
“He did a great job.”
Swarmer was charged with four runs but only one was earned due to a pair of costly Cubs errors.
He pitched in front of a crowd of 39,305 at Wrigley Field that included his mom, dad and uncle, and said his adrenaline was “pumping right away.”
It’s only one outing, but Swarmer is another homegrown Cubs pitcher to reach the big leagues, an area they have long struggled to develop players.
His outing came two days after Keegan Thompson threw five strong innings to help beat the White Sox.
Justin Steele will follow and start on Tuesday looking to bounce back from a rough outing against the Reds a week ago.
Speaking of homegrown pitching, Swarmer became the first Cubs pitcher to throw at least six innings while allowing one or fewer runs in his big-league debut since Dallas Beeler (June 28, 2014).
“I always had my mind set: I just want to be a big leaguer one day," Swarmer said. "Coming from a guy who went to Division II, it’s possible for anybody.
“You’ve just got to work hard and good things will happen.”