Biddle wins in long-awaited debut: A story of perseverance

Jesse Biddle finally made it.

Eight years after being a first-round draft pick and four years after his last Top-100 prospect ranking. After a litany of ailments and procedures ranging from plantar fasciitis and whooping cough to a torn lat muscle and Tommy John elbow surgery. After 10 different minor-league and winter-league teams ranging from the Williamsport Crosscutters and Indios de Mayaguez to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Mississippi Braves, Biddle made it to The Show.

The big left-hander, once a Philadelphia high school sensation and now a thoroughly tested, scarred but appreciative and reflective 26-year-old, finally realized a goal of pitching in the major leagues.

And it seemed only appropriate that someone who paid dues for so long before getting to the majors would be rewarded with an unforgettable debut as Biddle’s on Saturday night, when he pitched an inning and got a win.

Not just any win, but the decision in one of the Braves’ more stirring comebacks in recent years -- a 4-3 win against the Mets after falling behind 3-0 in the top of eighth inning. The Braves got within a run on Freddie Freeman’s two-run double in the bottom of the eighth, then scored the tying and winning runs in the ninth on Johan Camargo’s RBI triple and Ender Inciarte’s walk-off bunt single.

“It’s obviously an amazing feeling,” said Biddle, whose parents and brother were at SunTrust Park. “Just being a part of a game like that as the first game I pitched, the team rallying, me just throwing one inning and picking up two (support) runs – it was just fun for me to be a part of.”

Biddle pitched the top of the ninth, induced two ground-outs by the first batters he faced, then gave up a walk before getting Yoenis Cespedes on a ground-out. Cespedes’ grounder came after the Mets slugger first gave Braves fans in a sold-out crowd of 41,396 a scare by launching a moon-shot of a fly ball in the seats far beyond the left-field corner, a would-be homer initially ruled fair but overturned after replays showed it sail wide of the foul pole.

“I don’t want to say that my heart rate was ever too high when I was out there; I was trying to stay calm,” Biddle said, smiling. “And then he hit the ball and, like, he popped my ears with how loud it was. And then they called it fair, and that’s when my heart starting racing. I was like, there’s no way that was fair. I’m glad they got the call right.”

After Cespedes grounded out, Biddle got to do something else he’d only dreamed about, but dreamed about often.

“You always watch the big-league celebrations after a walk-off and you want to be a part of it,” he said, “so that was fun to be part of with this awesome team.”

Biddle was called up from Triple-A on Wednesday and his parents, Marion and David, caught a flight from Philadelphia that day. They had been through so much with their son, seen him at low points in the eight-year struggle to get to the majors, and weren’t about to miss his debut.

“My parents were just like, we’re staying until you pitch; we’re not going to buy a return flight until we see you throw,” Biddle said.

The Braves claimed Biddle off release waivers in March 2016, two days after he’d been dropped by the Pirates. He was a Phillies first-round pick in 2010 and a consensus top-100 prospect for three years before nagging injuries contributed to his 5.84 ERA at three minor league levels in 2014 and a 5.67 ERA in 24 minor league starts in 2015, before Tommy John surgery that October.

The Phillies traded him to Pittsburgh while he was recovering, and the Pirates designated him for assignment when they needed a 40-man roster spot. Biddle had the right of refusal when the Braves claimed him on release waivers, but didn’t. That’s a decision he’s glad he made.

It looked like his big league debut might come during the 2017 season before Biddle tore a lat muscle near his shoulder pitching at Double-A Mississippi last summer.

“It’s been a journey, but I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be in this clubhouse and part of this team, and I can’t thank the Atlanta Braves organization enough. I’ll say that all day, every day. They’ve given me the opportunity, it meant a lot.”

Biddle never brings up all the injuries he’s been through; others do that for him. When he’s asked to name the ailments other than Tommy John surgery, he looks at a reporter’s voice recorder and asks, “How long does this battery have left? It’s been a lot of stuff, man.”

Then he goes through an inventory of pain.

“I guess the highlights would be whooping cough, which is weird and was rough -- that was in 2013. In 2014 it was a concussion as well as a torn quad. I had Tommy John surgery; there were little injuries in-between that you don’t really need to cover too much.”

No, we insist, a reporter says.

He smiles and continues. “I had plantar fasciitis while having whooping cough for the last couple of months of the (2013) season. And some rotator-cuff impingment. But, you know, that’s stuff that pitchers have all the time. Nothing completely out of the ordinary. There was just a lot of stuff going on.

“It was a long couple of years, honestly. I mean, I was doing my best and I had a lot of people keeping me motivated, keeping me focused. But honestly, it gets harder and harder to feel like you’re going to get there when the harder you try, the more bad things are happening to your body and it’s breaking down. That’s our business, staying healthy is what we do, and if you’re not healthy it’s hard to perform and it’s hard to get to this level.”

While he never gave up, he concedes he thought about it.

“There’s a lot of people that have been in my corner for a long time,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I gave up on the dream, but it definitely became further and further away and less attainable in my eyes. So I can’t think the Braves organization enough just for giving me a chance. The first step to this whole process was just throwing my first pitch. That’s all I wanted to do was just throw one pitch in the big leagues, see what I had.”

It’s obvious but worth noting, few players ever drafted in the first round make their major league debuts eight years later. They arrive much sooner in the vast majority of cases, or not at all in small number of others. But eight years?

“Yeah, I definitely feel young,” Biddle said. “But also, tearing my lat last year was kind of the moment where I was like, man, am I getting old? Like, I threw one pitch and I just completely tore my lat. It just doesn’t seem like something that should happen to a 25-year-old. I did that in Mississippi last year in July, right as I was really finding my stride out of the bullpen. It’s just one of those things, I knew as soon as I did it that that was the end of the season.”

His season was over, but the dream lived on. And on Saturday, Biddle finally made it. Few seem likely to appreciate their big-league debuts more than he did.

“I can’t speak to anyone other than myself and I’m just really appreciative,” he said. “I think it tastes that much sweeter.”