CHICAGO — You won’t confuse Chicago Cubs right-hander Alec Mills with any of the flamethrowers in baseball, but perhaps you’ve seen his teammate — and 2016 ERA champ — Kyle Hendricks pitch. Mills is called a “baby Hendricks,” and Hendricks is called a “baby Maddux” — a reference, of course, to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
The point is that these guys don’t throw hard, but they still have success. And now Mills has done something neither of those other pitchers can claim: He has thrown a no-hitter.
Mills’ 114-pitch gem against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday was a work of art, which is what any great game thrown by a soft-tossing hurler is called. He struck out only five batters, but his array of curveballs kept the Brewers off-balance just enough, and the former 22nd-round pick of the Kansas City Royals put his name in the history books.
“I’m very overwhelmed.” Mills said after the 12-0 win. “Obviously, a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. I’ll always remember it.”
He’ll also remember his journey. Mills grew up in Tennessee and was a walk-on on at the University of Tennessee at Martin before he was drafted in 2012. He rose steadily in the minors, but having Tommy John surgery early in his career proved to be an obstacle.
“That’s a big bump in the road,” Mills said. “Mentally, it’s tough to get over.”
Spending parts of eight years in the minors was a journey itself, but Mills finally established himself with the Cubs after being designated for assignment by the Royals in 2017. Even then, he had to work his way onto the roster and into the rotation, filling a role when others failed or got hurt. Sunday was just his 15th career start.
“The one thing that stands out to me about Alec is that no matter what situation I’ve put him in this year, he’s answered the expectations we’ve had for him,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
After a dip in his performance earlier this month, Mills recovered in remarkable fashion, throwing the 16th no-hitter in franchise history. He did it the same way he moved up the rungs of the baseball ladder: methodically. On Sunday, he threw 62% fastballs, 20% curveballs and 12% changeups. It was nothing fancy and certainly nothing hard. His fastest pitch clocked in at 91 mph. Mills induced just five swing-and-misses, the fewest in a solo no-hitter since Dallas Braden’s perfect game for the Athletics in 2010.
The mild-mannered, goggles-wearing Mills was asked if he ever had a low point in his career, when he thought he might not make it. He shook his head.
“I’ve always thought of things on the brighter side,” he said. “I stepped up in the minors. Never was really stuck anywhere.”
With the Cubs entrenched at the top of the NL Central, Mills might be “stuck” in the rotation come October. Only a few days ago, the Cubs weren’t sure if they had more than two options to start a playoff game. After a Jon Lester gem on Friday and a stellar performance by Hendricks on Saturday, the Cubs might have more than enough pitching, with Mills staking his claim to a postseason start as well as the history books.
His manager, a journeyman himself, can appreciate where Mills has come from.
“Just a proud parent moment,” Ross said. “You see the adversity somebody has been through. To get an opportunity and make the most of it is really rewarding from my seat.”