A year ago, things were awfully bleak for Dillon Maples.
The right-handed pitcher was putting the finishing touches on a 2016 campaign that saw him post a 4.22 ERA, including a 7.71 mark in nine games at Advanced Class-A ball, the highest level he had advanced to in the Cubs system.
It had been more than five years since the Cubs selected him in the 14th round of the MLB Draft out of Pinecrest High School in North Carolina and he was still unable to even reach Double-A, let alone the majors.
That’s why he was thinking about quitting, wanting to hang up his spikes and be done with baseball.
But he stuck with it and Friday, the 25-year-old became the ultimate feel-good story in baseball with rosters expanding for September call-ups.
Maples was one of the Cubs’ choices for reinforcements, joining Justin Grimm, Victor Caratini and infielder Mike Freeman as the extra four guys on the roster. Maples has now gone from the lower levels of the minor leagues to the majors in the span of just a few months.
“It’s been a crazy year, but I’m ready for this. … It’s a pretty crazy 180, but the way this year’s progressed, I kinda expected to be here,” Maples said before walking it back a bit. “I wouldn’t say I expected to be here, but I was ready to be here if I was called on.”
Maples has earned it; this isn’t some charity call-up. He found his command and his confidence in 2017, sporting a 2.27 ERA while striking out 100 batters in 63.1 innings. He also attributes a lot of his success to working with Cubs mental skills coach Darnell McDonald and learning how to prepare mentally and physically for each day at the ballpark.
“First of all, the person always deserves the most credit,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “But I do think our player development staff really hanging in there with him [made a big difference]. He had his ups and downs, but his confidence was great this year and he really started trusting his breaking ball. He has a special ability to spin the ball — both curveball and slider — and just really trusting those pitches I think is the biggest difference.
“It’s a really fun moment for us to see a guy like that — a high-profile guy that went through ups and downs and may have even hung ’em up. For him to be here today, those are the special moments you try to enjoy.
“I mean, we are competing every day, but you try to take a step back and realize that for someone like him to realize that dream after that much hard work, it’s a great thing about our game. I don’t like the September call-up stuff, but this is one aspect that I do think is really nice when a guy can make his debut and get his parents here and kinda realize a dream.”
Maples’ parents won’t actually be in attendance this weekend at Wrigley Field, as they’re out visiting his younger brother at the Air Force Academy.
But they were able to revel in the joy of Maples’ first trip to “The Show.”
“[When I got the call,] I remember going up to the hotel room, calling my dad,” Maples said. “That’s the guy I called last year when I wanted to hang it up. I had lost passion, lost drive.
“I just remember calling him last year, so it was only appropriate that he’d be the first one I’d call. My mom was in the car, so she found out right away. Heard her scream. It’s definitely been a crazy ride for all of us.”
Joe Maddon met with the young right-hander before Friday’s game and said he plans to bring Maples along slowly in low-leverage situations.
But he also wanted Maples to understand he’s actually ahead of the curve for some relievers, who typically don’t make it to the big leagues until age 26 or 27.
“I wanted him to understand not to change anything,” Maddon said. “You’ve gotten here, you’ve done a lot of good stuff to get here, don’t think you have to do anything differently by being here.
“That’s always the danger. Sometimes, guys want to do something different to get out major-league hitters. I don’t want him to feel that way. Give him his opportunities when they present themselves.”