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Jordan Wicks wins his big-league debut for the Chicago Cubs, who hold on to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 10-6

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Jordan Wicks needed a minute to collect himself.

His major-league debut Saturday night in Pittsburgh got off to a shaky start at PNC Park. Wicks surrendered a home to Ke’Bryan Hayes on his second pitch of the game and the next two Pirates hitters reached. When the lefty fell behind 2-0 to Connor Joe with nobody out in the first inning, Chicago Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy trotted out from the dugout for a chat.

It provided the breather Wicks needed to get on track. Hottovy reminded Wicks, the Cubs’ 2021 first-round pick, that he was making good pitches and wasn’t missing by much. Stick with it, Hottovy said, and they’re going to start swinging. Joe whiffed on Wicks’ next three pitches following the mound visit, recording his first big-league strikeout with a deceptive changeup.

It began a stretch of five consecutive strikeouts by Wicks, something a Cubs pitcher hasn’t done in an MLB debut during the live-ball era (since 1920). Wicks earned his first win by holding the Pirates to one run in five innings.

After the Pirates scored five runs off the bullpen in the seventh to pull within two, the Cubs added a pair of runs in the ninth and won 10-6.

“He wouldn’t be up here if we thought he wasn’t ready for the moment,” manager David Ross said afterward. “That’s what that entails just believing in yourself, being confident in yourself and knowing what you can do on that stage. He never wavered.”

The Cubs envisioned a potentially fast track to the majors when they drafted Wicks. Right-hander Javier Assad was pushed back one day and will start the series finale Sunday. Right-handed reliever Michael Fulmer was placed on the 15-day injured list with a right forearm strain, retroactive to Friday, as the corresponding move for Wicks.

Wicks dazzled in his debut with his best pitch — the changeup — a devastating strikeout pitch while displaying the mental toughness and poise the Cubs have seen from him over the last three years.

He retired the last 15 Pirates he faced, another first by a Cubs pitcher during a big-league debut in the expansion era (since 1960).

The constant reassurance from Ross and Hottovy throughout Saturday centered on sticking to what he does best.

“That was a real calming message for me today and I really appreciated that,” Wicks said. “So that’s what we tried to do. It was awesome. I just tried to keep going out there and throwing up zeros. The only thing I could think about going out there was every time we scored, I felt like it relaxed me even more because I felt like I could go out there and do my thing.”

Wicks became the fourth starter in Cubs history dating to 1901 with at least nine strikeouts in his MLB debut, one shy of the team record set by Mark Prior in 2002 and Thomas Diamond in 2010.

“It’s not surprising that he climbed pretty quickly,” Hottovy said Saturday. “I just see a guy who’s a competitor and who’ll go out there and give you everything he’s got for as long as you leave him out there.

“What he does really well is he knows who he is and he’s willing to take information, he’s willing to listen to the coaches and the organization about things we want to help to make him better, but he also knows what his core is as as a pitcher. … He’s very pointed about, like, I know what I do well, I know what I need to work on, how can we piece that all together without getting caught up in trying to make all these drastic changes?”

Wicks was called into Triple-A manager Marty Pevey’s office Thursday and informed him he’s a big-leaguer. He had an inkling a call-up might be coming when he was scratched from his start Wednesday at Iowa. Wicks credited his wife, Megan, for handling that external chaos that can come with the process surrounding an MLB debut. She took care of getting tickets for Saturday’s game and making sure family got to Pittsburgh.

“The biggest thing for me was looking out there and seeing all of them,” Wicks said. “They all played a huge role in me getting here today and so just to be able to share this moment with them was incredibly special.”

Wicks, who will turn 24 on Friday, is rated as the Cubs’ No. 8 prospect by Baseball America and No. 10 by MLB.com. The Cubs selected Wicks with the 21st pick out of Kansas State in 2021. He is the first player from the team’s 2021 draft class to reach the majors.

He joined the Cubs in the midst of a playoff chase, but they don’t want Wicks to try to do too much.

“Simplify it to its true core, execute each pitch, go out there with your best stuff and we’ll take you out when we take you out,” Hottovy said. “Don’t feel like I’ve got to go six innings, I’ve got to pitch deep in the game. No, we’ll figure out the rest of it. Just go out and compete. Have fun. Don’t try to do too much.”

Wicks posted a 3.82 ERA in seven starts with Triple-A Iowa after beginning the season at Double-A Tennessee, with whom he started 13 games and owned a 3.39 ERA.

Wicks and catcher Miguel Amaya utilized a six-pitch mix versus the Pirates with his changeup setting up his fastball. He generated nine whiffs on 12 swings against his changeup while recording seven called strikes on 14 sinkers and five called strikes with his four-seam fastball.

“A guy with that has a changeup as a strength is somebody that’s probably used to reading swings well,” Hottovy said of Wicks. “When guys have good breaking balls that’s a plus put away pitch, a lot of that they’re just ripping them and you’re getting swings on good execution, nasty pitches. But guys that rely on the changeup do have this ability to read where a hitter is. Is he on my fastball? Is he trying to get to my heater a little bit more? So it’s something he’s learned over his career.”

A big-league opportunity for Wicks opened when the Cubs needed a starter because of their decision to move veteran lefty Drew Smyly back to the bullpen after a bad outing Tuesday in Detroit.

The Cubs hope Fulmer will only need a minimum stint on the 15-day IL, just as Justin Steele did with his forearm strain in June. However, Fulmer will get imaging on his forearm in the coming days to receive further clarity on the injury. He has been dealing with forearm discomfort for approximately four weeks, but it reached the point at which Fulmer wasn’t bouncing back well enough and needed extended rest to let it fully heal.

“We just felt like we hit a wall,” Hottovy said. “We needed to give it some time here. But for him, what he’s done, it’s again a testament of the work he’s put in this point. But now it’s again to turn back to, all right, who’s going to step up now, who’s going to have the opportunity to come in some of those same situations and keep us in ballgames, get out of big situations?”

Without Fulmer, Ross views it as all hands on deck. He specifically mentioned Daniel Palenica, José Cuas, Smyly and Hayden Wesneski, the last mainly against right-handers, as possible options for increased leverage spots as they look to fill the void of Fulmer’s absence in the late innings.

Fulmer filled a valuable role as bridge to the back-end trio of Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay and taking high-leverage spots, especially when coming in to games with runners on base. Fulmer thrived in those moments with his 19 IRS% ranking better than league average. It can be an underappreciated role but one that plays a key cog in the bullpen’s effectiveness.

“We have to find somebody to pick up that slack in those moments and there’s somebody down there that are going to take that role and they’re going to grab it and run with it,” Ross said.

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