PITTSBURGH — Nick Kingham got really close to the majors in 2015. He posted a 3.58 ERA in Triple-A in 2014 and returned to that level the next year, most likely as the Pirates first option for a call-up.
The call didn’t come, though, and at the end of May, it was discovered that Kingham needed Tommy John surgery. He missed the rest of that season, most of the next, and wasn’t exactly himself in much of 2017.
A closed-door meeting toward the end of 2017 turned Kingham’s fortunes around as far as minor-league results, but that didn’t open the door for him as far as a Major League job. The Pirates retained four starters from 2017, traded Gerrit Cole, but acquired Joe Musgrove.
At the beginning of Spring Training, Kingham was probably no better than the club’s No. 8 starter, behind Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow, who started the year in the Major League bullpen.
Kingham knew that he needed to do something to get himself ahead of the pack. So when he got sent down to minor-league camp on March 20, he gotta work on something different.
“I was trying to mess with a little cutter, just to add another pitch,” Kingham said. “Just something off my fastball. I was just a traditional fast-change-curve. I wanted to add one more tool, one more weapon to get guys off the heater. I just started messing with it, one day it just clicked and it’s been working.”
To say it’s been working is an understatement of the highest order. In Kingham’s MLB debut on Sunday, facing a potent St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup, he spun his slider 32 times. Here’s the impressive final tally.
That’s a good day for any Major Leaguer. For a player making his MLB debut, using a pitch that he’s only been throwing for about a month, well, it’s pretty much incredible.
“I haven’t been throwing it for very many starts,” Kingham said. “I think right at 30 days, actually. I just starting throwing it, but I love it. I feel confident in it. I can throw it in any count, any batter. It’s just another tool to add to myself and I think it’s going to help me get hitters out.”
Catcher Elias Diaz hadn’t seen Kingham’s slider until they began to prep for his start. He was immediately impressed.
“I was surprised with it because in Spring Training, he didn’t throw a slider,” Diaz said. “So, he started throwing it in Triple-A. I saw it today and I said, ‘Oh. We’re gonna throw it. We’re gonna use this one.’ And he got results.”
Kingham’s slider was sitting at about 85 MPH, only a bit harder than his typically 81 MPH curveball. But it looks just like his bottom-of-the-zone fastball, right up until the bottom falls out from underneath it.
“My slider is nothing without the fastball at the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Hitters know the fastball is there. I have to establish that early and often, and then it kind of opens up the slider, because they think it’s a heater and then it just drops off the table. Fastball command is huge for any pitch.”
“They had to give something,” added manager Clint Hurdle. “You’re looking slider, the fastball is going to beat you and if you’re looking fastball, the slider has got a chance to get you with the tilt and the depth to it. It was such a well-pitched game.”
Diaz had no issues with his first time receiving Kingham’s slider that was frequently dirty in both the literal and figurative definition of the word.
“It’s not tough to catch it,” he said. “It’s tough to hit it.”
Plenty of pitchers that have a good slider, and have gone on to have long and successful careers didn’t have the kind of MLB debut that Kingham had. His 20 consecutive batters retired to start his career is the most since at least 1961, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
What he showed, in addition to a snappy slider and a well-place fastball, was a whole heaping pile of poise, as he navigated the usual nerves of a debut, compounded by carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning.
“I was nervous, yeah, no doubt, but I feel like it’s good to be nervous,” Kingham said. “I feel like I care and that just made my intentions a little bit more heightened and more serious and handle everything a little more carefully.”
Kingham also said that the adversity that he went through of getting so close only to suffer such a serious setback, and the fact that he spent nearly three years on the precipice of achieving the goal of making the majors, made it easier to deal with the emotions of his debut.
“Some downs make you realize who you are, the ups make you realize where you came from,” he said. “I was just taking the hits along with it, putting one foot in front of the other, one pitch at a time. Just not trying to get ahead of myself and let the game develop on its own.”
Keeping Kingham steady, while the rest of the dugout customarily avoided the perfect pitcher, was Kingham’s longtime confidant, Diaz.
Diaz was signed by the Pirates in 2008, played in his native Venezuela in 2009, and came to the United States for the first time in 2010. Midway through that season, Kingham arrived at Pirate City as a fourth round pick and the two forged a bond that has connected them through nearly every level of the minors and now the majors.
“We’ve been playing since 2010 until this year,” Diaz said. “We were always together. He’s my man.”
“We played at pretty much every level together, I think,” Kingham said. “He’s caught me more than a handful of times — 20, 30, 40 times. We know each other really well. He knows what I like to do. He knows what to do when things aren’t working, so we have that kind of connection the whole time.”
In many ways, the story of Kingham’s debut at least part belongs to Diaz. The second-year catcher called Kingham’s perfect game bid and came through with enough offense to secure the victory all by himself, going 3 for 4 with two RBIs and raising his wRC+ to an eye-popping 240.
“That’s another man that’s dealt with adversity, that’s pushed through some things and shows some resiliency to put himself in this position,” Hurdle said. “He’s really moved upon the opportunity well.”
Diaz admitted that so far, that is probably the best he’s played in the majors.
“I have to say yeah,” he said “My hitting, I get three hits. I tried to do my best. But I was thinking just in my game calling, because we had the perfect game going and it was a big day for (Kingham) because it was his debut.”
Diaz said that while he was trying to keep Kingham cool, he was a bit nervous himself. It’s just as much of an honor for a catcher to call a perfect game as it is for a pitcher to throw one.
“We tried to follow the game plan, just be aggressive every hitter, go pitch by pitch,” Diaz said. “I can’t explain how I feel for him. … I was thinking his debut, perfect game for him and perfect game for me because I’ve never caught a perfect game, no-hitter. That’s why we were aggressive. We wanted to get the out in that inning. But we left one pitch away. You know how it is.”
Kingham said that he’s staying with the club as they head on the road. He’ll more than likely get another chance to start. Maybe he and Diaz will get another chance at perfection.