May-June 2020

Bethesda interview: Danny Hultzen

Pitcher Danny Hultzen, a Bethesda native, talks about getting picked second in the major league draft, the injuries that almost ended his career, and his first trip to the mound for the Chicago Cubs

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How did you rehab this time?

It worked out perfectly because I could go back to UVA to finish my degree. Not being with a pro team, I wasn’t responsible to be at their facilities. Our trainer at UVA, through the kindness of his heart, rehabbed me. I was a student coach with the team, so I was there anyway. It was hitting a reset button for me, getting away from pro ball. I took time, going extra slow. I was in a better place mentally. I wasn’t worried about making people happy. I spent 2017 there, with an eye on 2018. Around December, I tried to get my name out again and say I wanted to keep playing.

How did you do that?

Our coaches at UVA know all the scouts in the area. My agent was putting my name out there as much as he could. I was making videos of myself. I’d throw a pitch and show the velocity and my mechanics. Send that to teams to show I can throw a ball without my arm falling off. My college pitching coach has a radar gun. I throw a pitch and he comes back and shows me it’s 91 miles an hour. I thought, if I’m throwing that hard in a bullpen right now, that’s incredible.

How did you connect with the Cubs?

The guy I knew with the Cubs was Terry Clark, a coach I was close with on the Mariners. The Cubs made an offer. That was February 2018, when spring training was starting. I did the physical there. The doctors said the MRI does not look good. This does not look like a healthy shoulder, but if you’re out there and you’re willing to go, then we’ll have you. I had one frustrating setback in the middle of that year. That led me to this new type of working out I’m doing called EVO UltraFit. It’s super intense and painful, but worked for a lot of guys. I attribute a lot of my shoulder health to that treatment.

How did you start out with the Cubs?

I pitched in the rookie Arizona League in August 2018, the first time in more than two years in a competitive game. I’m amped up. The first batter hits a home run. Second batter, triple. Third batter, single. Fourth batter, maybe a strikeout. The last hitter, single. I just get torched against much younger competition. That was incredibly discouraging. My buddy said, ‘At least you’re in a position to get crushed. At least you’re out there.’ That kind of opened my eyes. I went to Triple-A and my arm was feeling great. But because I hadn’t thrown a whole lot these past five, six years, my shoulder started bothering me again in August. I talked to the trainer and said I need a week or two to just calm down.

In Triple-A, did you wonder about being called up to the Cubs?

It’s hard to call somebody up with 15 innings in Triple-A. I talked with a front office guy. He’s like, ‘Yeah, we love what we see, but we need to see more.’ I pitched a couple more times in the playoffs with our Triple-A team. By Sept. 1, they had called other guys up. We were playing catch to warm up for one of those playoff games. We finish up and I go to the weight room to do some stuff. The pitching coach calls me in. I’m either getting released or something very good is happening. They tell me I’m going up. I kind of stumbled backward, almost falling into the sofa.

What went through your mind?

All this work. All this disappointment. All these frustrations. The belief in myself. All the help I’d gotten from my family, my friends, my pitching coaches. The waves of confidence and waves of hope. I started crying. It was a shock. I remember calling my dad and not even being able to talk to him on the phone. It was literally a dream come true.

Where did you connect with the Cubs?

I flew into Chicago, then we drove to Milwaukee. I’m on cloud nine, soaking it in. I am nervous and excited, trying to enjoy everything. It’s just me and the driver. That was the first taste of the big leagues. A cool decked-out Escalade, I think. Water and snacks in the back.

How did Cubs players receive you?

Everyone in that locker room had been in my position. These guys were unbelievable about saying hi and congratulating me. I got good advice from a handful of guys. The best was from Derek Holland. He said to not have tunnel vision. Go out there and literally look around. Enjoy it. Soak it all in.

How was it to get in a game?

It was nerves, excitement. The first batter was Christian Yelich. I’d faced big league hitters before. I still wasn’t sure how my stuff would match up. All it took was the first pitch. Fastball away. Arguably the second-best player in baseball swings really awkwardly at it. I can hang here. I can do this. I get two strikes and throw a two-seam fastball. It rides in. He swings and it hits him in the hand and ricochets and hits the umpire in the knee. The umpire goes down like he gets shot. There’s a three-, four-minute delay to get this guy back on his feet. There’s another couple-minute argument about whether Yelich swung. I gave up a hit to the next guy, so there’s first and second, nobody out. But I struck those next three guys out.

Were your family or friends there?

My mom, dad, brother, his fiancée, my high school friend, and Jarrett Parker, my college friend. I called all of them and they booked the next flight. The following Saturday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, I had people there representing all parts of my life—high school friends, college friends, Arizona friends, high school coach, Little League coach. Everybody that helped me get to that point. I hadn’t pitched in four, five days, but the one day they were all there, I pitched. It was awesome.

What are your chances with the Cubs in the future?

Obviously, for seven years, that was the motivating factor—just to get there, achieve this dream, say you’re a major league baseball player. That was beautiful, and that all worked out. Now that end goal has to change. I want to stay there.

Andrew Schotz is the managing editor of Bethesda Beat. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.