CHICAGO — Ryan Borucki grew up in Mundelein, Ill., a quiet suburb of about 30,000 an hour north of Chicago. His dad, Ray, was a Chicago White Sox fan. Growing up, Ryan had no other choice.
They made the trip down I-94 at least four or five times a season to watch the White Sox play. Sitting out in the bleachers, watching Mark Buehrle spin a gem, or Magglio Ordonez take a pitcher deep, or Jerry Manuel getting run, Borucki soaked up every moment.
Buehrle was his favourite, and as Borucki began developing as a pitcher himself, he tried to emulate the quick-working left-hander’s game. Buehrle was one of the most underrated pitchers of his time, throwing at least 200 innings for 14 consecutive seasons, and finishing his career with a 3.82 ERA over 493 starts. If that was easy to accomplish, every pitcher would do it. Borucki’s trying to himself.
Sunday, on a picture perfect south side afternoon, he was back at a White Sox game in Chicago. Except this time he was taking the mound, with Buehrle’s No. 56 on his back, about to make his sixth major-league start. It was, quite literally, a dream come true.
“It was definitely weird,” he said after throwing six strong innings of two-run ball against the team he grew up cheering for. “Even the last couple days, I was looking up to where I used to sit as a kid. It’s just crazy to think that I’m actually here and got to play today against the White Sox.”
He also got to play in front of an extensive support section that made the hour-long trip from Mundelein to cheer Borucki on. When he was warming up in the outfield before the game, the 24-year-old looked up into the stands and was amazed as he kept finding different groups of people that he knew.
He’d been expecting about 50-60 friends and family to be in attendance, but after seeing how many were actually there, he ballparked the figure at upwards of 100, and even approaching 150.
“It was awesome. I couldn’t have pictured it any better. I saw so many people that I knew, I couldn’t even count them,” Borucki said. “So many people that I know and from my home town — parents and everything. It was definitely a dream.”
All that considered, you might think Borucki would be a little jumpy ahead of such a meaningful outing. So, when Borucki’s catcher, Luke Maile, met with him for their pre-game meeting to go over the opposing lineup, did he detect a hint of nervousness from the young starter?
“Not even a little bit,” Maile said, shaking his head and smiling. “He was the same guy. The exact same guy. I’m super impressed with him.”
The only indication all night that Borucki was even slightly anxious was on his very first pitch of the ballgame, a 91-mph fastball that sailed a good two feet outside the zone. But Borucki immediately settled in, throwing his next pitch for a strike before retiring the batter with a lazy fly ball to centre field.
Maile wasn’t surprised. Sunday was his second time catching Borucki this season, and after each outing he’s come away with a distinct appreciation for the confidence and mettle that Borucki operates with on the mound.
“He just has great composure. He’s way ahead of his time,” Maile said. “Especially coming to his home town, you have the tendency to be a little fired up and maybe not be yourself. But nothing changed. And he was awesome again.”
Borucki pitched quickly and efficiently, working his plus change-up off his 92-mph two-seamer on his way to 15 swinging strikes. He also threw his still-developing slider effectively as a show-me pitch, going to it only 14 times over his 103 pitches, but using it to pick the backdoor a couple times for strikes and punch out a batter in the early going.
The similarities to Buehrle are obvious, as Borucki works quickly, attacks the zone, and trusts the defenders behind him. Borucki came into the outing averaging 21 seconds between pitches, comfortably below the 23.5-second average of MLB starters.
That’s not quite as quick as Buehrle, who averaged fewer than 17 seconds between pitches over the course of his career. But it is a tactic that is endearing Borucki to the teammates playing behind him.
“It’s just a defensive player’s dream to have him on the mound,” Maile said.
The Blue Jays catcher has also been impressed with Borucki’s ability to continue getting hitters out with his change-up, a pitch that’s highlighted in the first line of his scouting report, and one he’s not afraid to double or triple up on at times.
“It’s not a huge secret that he’s got it. And I think that even speaks more to it — just the fact that they know he’s got it and they know it’s coming at some point and he still gets a lot of bad swings on it,” Maile said. “I’m curious to see how they adjust down the road. And I’m curious to see how he responds to it. But, for now, it’s pretty impressive.”
Sunday was only Borucki’s sixth start in the majors, but it’s hard to imagine them going much better. He has a 2.83 ERA over his first 35 innings, and is boasting an exceptional 2.8 BB/9. He’s yet to allow a home run, and both a .342 batting average on balls in play and 2.51 FIP suggest he hasn’t always been the benefactor of good luck.
“You don’t even recognize where he came from or what his experience level is any more — because he can pitch,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “He’s very professional. He’s a workman. He just goes out there and pitches his game.”
Of course, this start was a little more special than his first five — probably a lot. Borucki said that when AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” played before the game, as it has during player introductions prior to White Sox games for decades, it sent chills up his spine.
After celebrating the victory with his teammates, Borucki dressed, met with the media, and quickly went out to the concourse to meet with as many of his supporters as he could and thank them for coming. He’s not sure what he’ll remember most from this day — but he figures that might be it.
“Just to see all the people that I haven’t even gotten to say hi to,” he said. “The level of support that I’ve had from my home town and all my friends and family from back home — for them to make the trip out — I think the moment when I walk outside and see everyone and say thank you and everything is going to be the moment that I’m going to take away.”