09/03/2002 11:12 pm ET
Van Hekken comes up big in debut
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Andy Van Hekken just wanted to survive his first Major League inning. "The quicker, the better," he said.
His parents, Dave and Lynn, wanted him to survive Jim Thome and Karim Garcia. "I was worried that they might tee off on him," Dave said.
Catcher Matt Walbeck just wanted to keep his pitcher from an attack of nerves. "God, he's like ice out there," he'd say later on.
First baseman Carlos Peña just wanted anything positive. "Maybe it's a key play, maybe a bunt," he said. "But when we get a shutout like this, that's it."
They all got what they wanted, and way more than they could've dreamed.
Van Hekken's complete-game shutout of the Indians Tuesday pretty much sums up this 23-year-old left-hander's career -- sometimes uneventful, yet always unexpected. He grew up a Red Sox fan but knew early on he wouldn't have the arm or the bulk for a Roger Clemens fastball. Instead, he developed Tom Glavine precision in locating pitches and that uncanny ability to win games.
"It's not how hard or how soft you throw," manager Luis Pujols said. "It's how you pitch. That's the Andy Van Hekken I remember [last season] from Erie."
The poise he has displayed in his way up to Detroit is even tougher to compare. One report from Toledo, where Van Hekken went 5-0 in seven starts, said that he throws with such ease that he looks like he's playing a game of catch. The only comparison Matt Walbeck could make is with his former Twins teammate Brad Radke.
"Once I started, I wasn't really nervous," he said. "When I got called up to different levels in the past, just getting on the field calms me down. That's the way it's always been."
Said Walbeck: "He never got rattled. He had guys on second base pretty much the whole game. He never rattled or showed any nerves."
What Van Hekken accomplished in his Major League debut compares in Tiger lore with Schoolboy Rowe, who was the last Detroit pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout in his debut back in 1933. No pitcher in the American League had debuted with a complete-game shutout since Oakland's Mike Norris on April 10, 1975.
Van Hekken's first-inning concerns lasted all of three minutes and seven pitches -- a first-pitch flyout from Milton Bradley, a four-pitch strikeout of Omar Vizquel and an Ellis Burks groundout to complete his best inning of the night.
He escaped his first jam in the next inning with one of several defensive gems. After Thome walked and Garcia singled, shortstop and ex-Erie teammate Ramon Santiago turned a Josh Bard grounder into an inning-ending double play.
At that point, Van Hekken's family and friends from Holland, Mich., sounded like they had the place to themselves. They've followed his debuts at each new level, making an eight-hour drive to Double-A Erie last year and about three hours to Toledo this summer. For this one, Van Hekken had about 35 members and well over 100 Holland residents. That included enough friends from Holland's Hope College that professors let them take some of their Tuesday classes Monday night.
The crowd grew louder by the middle innings, when Van Hekken had a four-hit shutout and a 4-0 lead. Santiago helped him out again in the fifth with a quick throw to third base on an inning-ending fielder's choice to tag out Bard.
In the sixth, Van Hekken helped out his own cause. After a leadoff single to Bradley and another to Burks, up came Thome and out came pitching coach Steve McCatty, telling him to keep the ball down. His fastball away become a first-pitch grounder to Peña, who threw to Santiago at second base as Van Hekken made a sudden mad dash to first for the double-play throw.
That was Van Hekken's only visible sign of awe.
"I got over there just in time," he said. "I got caught watching a little bit."
Garcia and Chris Magruder singled in the seventh, but Van Hekken escaped with a John McDonald groundout. At that point, Van Hekken's thoughts turned from pitching a victory in his debut to pitching a shutout. His adrenaline showed in the eighth when Vizquel tried to bunt his way on. Van Hekken might have thrown his hardest to fire out Vizquel at first base. After Burks doubled, Van Hekken battled Thome again, making him step back with a nasty curve for strike two before giving up a walk.
A Garcia inning-ending groundout became another mad dash to first. And Pujols' thoughts turned from a 100-pitch target to giving a good kid a chance.
"I was wondering if they'd let me go back out there," Van Hekken said. "Luis asked if I could go one more. I gave a pretty good yes."
He gave a pretty good final example of poise. After a Greg La Rocca double, he retired Bard, Magruder and McDonald in order. And for the first time since receiving the call from the Tigers Monday morning in Toledo, Van Hekken could soak it in.
"I was trying to figure out if it was good that I had to pitch tonight as opposed to coming up here and getting four days' rest," he said. "I never really figured out an answer. I guess it was a good thing."
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.