Andy McKay called Chase De Jong with good news and bad news. As is customary, Seattle’s director of player development shared the negative first.
Sorry, McKay told the 23-year-old right-hander, but you won’t be starting the Tacoma Rainiers’ season opener.
“Dang,” De Jong thought. He had already told his parents he would be pitching that day.
“And then he said, ‘well, the reason is, you’re going to the big leagues,’ ” De Jong said. “I was like, ‘are you kidding me?’ ”
He wasn’t. Left-handed reliever Dillon Overton had been placed on the three-day paternity list so he could be with his wife, Morgan, as she delivered the couple’s first child, and the Mariners needed a pitcher to fill in for a few days.
So the call went to De Jong, who wound up on the roster for Seattle’s season-opener at Houston and made his big-league debut — somewhat unexpectedly — two days later.
“It’s something that’s definitely made me more hungry and just have that urge to get back there and stay there,” said De Jong, who is back in Tacoma and slated to start Sunday’s game against Albuquerque. “It was incredible to be a part of that opening day.”
The plan wasn’t necessarily for him to pitch, De Jong said, but Mariners manager Scott Servais advised that he stay ready just in case.
Well, just in case happened. In the third game of the series — De Jong’s final day with the big-league club before Overton returned – the Mariners and Astros headed to the bottom of the ninth, tied 2-2. Servais summoned closer Edwin Diaz, leaving De Jong and right-hander Nick Vincent as the only available relievers still in the bullpen.
Vincent turned to De Jong and remarked: “And then there were two.”
Diaz pitched two scoreless innings, the game still tied after 10. The call came for Vincent to begin warming up. He entered the game in the 11th and, like Diaz, threw two scoreless innings.
The phone rang again. Bullpen coach Mike Hampton turned to De Jong.
“Well kid,” he told the young right-hander, “I know they’re not calling for me.”
So De Jong made his major-league debut in the bottom of the 13th, the Mariners now leading 3-2 after scratching out a bases-loaded walk in the top half of the inning. It did not go as he probably hoped. The first batter he faced, Yulieski Gurriel, tapped a soft grounder back to him for an easy out. Then he walked Evan Gattis, and realized he was a little more nervous than he might have felt in his mind.
“I remember after the Gattis walk,” De Jong said, “I went and tried to get my fingers a little wet and I had the worst case of cottonmouth I’ve ever had in my life. There was just nothing there.”
Still, he got Josh Reddick to pop out to Robinson Cano for the second out, just one away from recording a save in his first big-league action. But he allowed a single to Nori Aoki, then George Springer swatted a 3-2 curveball that just barely cleared the left-field fence for a walk-off, three-run homer to deliver the Mariners a crushing defeat.
De Jong was disappointed, but not discouraged.
“I obviously came up on the wrong side of a pop fly,” he said, “but I pitched in the big leagues, and that was incredible.”
His next outing — his first start with the Rainiers — went a little better, as he allowed two hits and walked three while allowing only one earned run in 5 1/3 innings to earn the victory against Sacramento. (Overton has since been optioned to Tacoma, too, to make room for right-hander Tony Zych, activated earlier this week from the 10-day disabled list.)
A second-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, De Jong came to the Mariners from the Los Angeles Dodgers in early March in a trade for minor-league infielder Drew Jackson and minor-league pitcher Aneurys Zabala. He can throw four pitches for strikes, Rainiers manager Pat Listach said, and “has been known as a strike thrower.”
De Jong said he’s working with Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter on his mechanics, and is trying to develop his slider into “more of a true slider.”
“But other than that, just really fine-tuning, solidifying myself and being able to go help out when needed,” said De Jong, who envisions his next big-league stint will come as a starter.
Aside from Springer’s walk-off, De Jong’s brief taste of the bigs was nearly perfect. He said his mother, his fiancée, his aunt and one of his cousins made it to Minute Maid Park to see him in a big-league uniform for the first time. The one downside: his dad couldn’t get time away from his job to make it out.
“That was unfortunate,” De Jong said. “But he said he’ll definitely be there for my first start.”
Tacoma continues its three-game series against Albuquerque with a 1:35 p.m. Sunday game at Cheney Stadium. De Jong (1-0, 1.69 ERA) is scheduled to pitch for the Rainiers against right-hander Jeff Hoffman (0-0, 4.50) for the Isotopes. The game can be heard live on 850 AM.