Caleb Kilian Bouncing Back from Rough Inning Was Best Part of Strong Debut

The highly anticipated debut of 25-year-old righty Caleb Kilian offered just about everything Cubs fans could have asked for, including a rough inning that saw the top prospect struggle with his command. Viewed as part of the big picture, how Kilian bounced back from the 4th inning may have been more important than the way he dominated the first three frames.

All the hype appeared to have been justified as the rookie blazed through the first two batters of the game with a pair of strikeouts on just seven pitches. Working off of his sinker, he got ahead early and missed bats with multiple different offerings. After getting strikeouts on his four-seam and curve, Kilian broke out the cutter to Paul Goldschmidt and earned a called strike before generating a groundout.

It only took nine pitches to breeze through the next inning on two grounders and a fly, then Kilian authored a ho-hum 11-pitch effort in the 3rd. That included a leadoff strikeout of Yadier Molina, whose own debut came almost 18 years ago to the date (June 3, 2004). That would be the day after Kilian’s seventh birthday and your intrepid author’s 25th.

“Yadi, I watched him when I was a little kid,” the pitcher said after the game. “It’s kind of crazy to face guys like that.”

While Kilian was later able to strike Molina out a second time, more on that in a bit, the other crazy thing about facing veteran hitters is that they learn pretty quickly. Kilian was getting a lot of called strikes early as the Cardinals sized him up, but that went away quickly as the lineup turned over.

A leadoff walk to Tommy Edman in the 4th featured a flurry of uncompetitive pitches, after which a fly ball calmed things down a bit. Then Kilian piped a sinker to the hottest hitter on the planet and Goldschmidt poked it into center for a single. A five-pitch walk to Arenado, again on several pitches that weren’t close, loaded the bases for Brendan Donovan.

Even before the left fielder could do his thing, Kilian hurt his own cause with a wild pitch that allowed a run to score and advanced the other two runners. Donovan’s two-run double to the gap scored two more and it looked like the wheels were about to come off. But they didn’t, which is where Kilian really showed his mettle.

After escaping the inning without further damage, David Ross was confident in his young starter’s ability to shake off the struggles. Kilian did just that with strikeouts to bookend the frame, getting Molina to open it and Edman to close it. And guess what? It was the cutter that got them both, one swinging and the other looking.

Tossing three perfect frames was pretty cool and giving up three runs with two walks in an inning was a little scary, but being able to put a bow on the whole thing with that 5th inning was the best sign yet of who Kilian is as a pitcher. I don’t care how they need to shuffle things once Wade Miley, Drew Smyly, and Alec Mills are back from the IL, but Kilian needs to stay with the big club moving forward.

We’ve seen Christopher Morel come up and energize the organization with his enthusiastic play and several relievers have come up to stock the arm barn, giving little glimpses of what the future holds. Now we have evidence that the Cubs might finally have a homegrown starter who can hold down a spot at the top of the rotation. That’s a lot of fun even if the recent results aren’t.

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