Cubs’ Nick Burdi makes improbable big-league comeback

Last August, Burdi wasn’t sure if he’d ever make it back to a big-league mound.

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The Cubs see promise in Nick Burdi, a hard-throwing right-hander from Downers Grove. 

The Cubs see promise in Nick Burdi, a hard-throwing right-hander from Downers Grove.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

HOUSTON — Doubt crept into Nick Burdi’s mind last August as the end of the season crept nearer, and his recovery from his latest arm surgery stalled.

“That was the point where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is ever gonna happen again,’ ” he told the Sun-Times.

A comeback from two Tommy John surgeries and an operation to treat thoracic outlet syndrome was already a tall task. But last year Burdi underwent an operation to relieve the pressure a piece of scar tissue was putting on the ulnar nerve in his elbow, his fourth arm surgery in six years.

On Tuesday, Burdi made his first major-league appearance since August 2020. It wasn’t perfect. In the Cubs’ 7-3 loss, he took over for starter Justin Steele in the seventh inning and allowed two runs on a walk, double, sacrifice fly and RBI single. But that inning was also one he could use as a building block.

“We all want to punch out the side,” he said. “And, obviously, I wanted to put a zero up for these guys. I know that we’ve kind of been battling, and I wanted to stay in that game. But I think overall, for me to get back out there, get that first one out of the way, now it’s like, all right, we can get going.”

The Cubs see promise in the hard-throwing right-hander from Downers Grove.

“I’m excited for him,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Monday after the Cubs selected Burdi from Triple-A Iowa. “It would be a great story for him to come all the way back and pitch well.”

Burdi began his professional career as a 2014 second-round pick (No. 46 overall) by the Twins out of the University of Louisville. After Burdi missed much of the 2017 minor-league season for his first Tommy John surgery, the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 Draft and traded him to the Pirates for international signing-bonus pool money.

“He’s prepared,” said Cubs starter Jameson Taillon, who overlapped with Burdi in Pittsburgh. “He works extremely hard — maybe too hard. He’s always in the gym, always getting after it. He’s got electric stuff. Once he settles in up here and gets comfortable pitching out of a big-league bullpen again, I think he’s got back-end bullpen stuff.”

Burdi made his major-league debut with the Pirates the next year, but as injuries mounted, he pitched in only 16 major-league games over three seasons. Burdi had the surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome in 2019 and his second Tommy John surgery the next year.

It was a long road back, but a major silver lining for Burdi and his wife, Rebecca, was the time he got to spend with his daughter. She was born in December 2020, a couple of months after Burdi’s second Tommy John surgery. He got the brace off in time to hold her.

In the spring last year, Burdi was progressing toward a return. He threw a promising bullpen session with good velocity. His elbow felt great.

“And I woke up the next day and just couldn’t bend my elbow,” he said.

He had surgery to remove what he described as a “thumb-sized” piece of scar tissue sitting on top of his nerve.

At the end of that setback, however, was good news. While Burdi was rehabbing in Rhode Island this past December, his agent surprised him with the news that the Cubs were going to select him in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

“And then, all of a sudden, it’s like this big peak again,” he said. “And you ride that wave going to spring training. And then I’ve carried that with me, that excitement.”

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