The Chicago Cubs are in a pennant race and rookie Kevin Hart has taken notice.
After posting 12 wins and a 3.99 ERA in 158 innings between Class AAA Iowa and Class AA Tennessee, Hart was summoned to Chicago on Sept. 4 and would make his big league debut later that day.
Personal achievements such as the Cubs' annual award for Minor League Pitcher of the Year (which Hart was awarded prior to Wednesday's game against Cincinnati) aside, the 24-year-old has only one main goal now:
Help the Cubs reach the post-season for the first time in four years.
"That's my only objective," said the Texas native, who played college ball at Maryland before being selected in the 11th round of the 2004 draft by Baltimore.
"When called upon, do the best of my ability. If they want me to eat up innings, I'll eat up innings. If they want me to get certain people out, that's what I'll do."
It has been a fun ride for Hart, these past few months.
The right-hander has come a long way since joining the club from the Orioles last December via trade. He has gone from pitching in quaint stadiums in the Class A Carolina League to pitching in such notable venues as Wrigley Field, PNC Park and Busch Stadium, and all in the span of a year.
It hasn't come easy, though. Hart has faced his share of adversity, beginning in April when he began his first Double-A season with Tennessee.
Hart struggled through the first month and a half of the season and would close out May with a plus-six ERA through 10 appearances that included nine starts.
A demotion to High-A ball seemed possible. And then it happened.
Hart got on a roll, winning his last six decisions with Tennessee and posting a 2.20 ERA in the span of just over a month – a span of 45 innings total.
All of a sudden, the only place Hart found himself headed to was Omaha, Neb., for his Triple-A debut with the Iowa Cubs on July 13.
All told, Hart would win 10 of his last 11 decisions between Tennessee and Iowa, losing only a game in which he tossed eight innings and yielded just one run and five hits no less (July 30 against Triple-A Salt Lake).
Just over a month later, Hart was on board a flight to Chicago but not before making just one minor stop immediately beforehand.
Prior to the September call-up, Hart along with teammate Sean Gallagher was sent back to Double-A on August 30 because Tennessee had "a chance to make the playoffs and this keeps them pitching," Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita had said.
Tennessee skipper Pat Listach, who had managed both Hart and Gallagher previously in the year, saw the writing on the wall.
Listach knew instantly why both players needed to keep throwing.
"One or both may be headed to Chicago," Listach said.
Hart had heard through the grapevines that there was a possibility of being called up to Chicago once rosters expanded in September. Then, the Cubs made what many considered a surprise move by acquiring pitcher Steve Trachsel from the Orioles and Hart became somewhat leery of his chances for a call-up.
"They got Trachsel and I didn't figure that I was going up," he recalled. "They called Gallagher up the next day, so I kind of felt I was going to end up being the odd man out. I guess it just ended up working out."
It has so far anyway.
In five games totaling 7 2/3 innings from the Chicago bullpen, Hart has yielded one run on five hits, striking out eight batters and walking two.
He has given the Cubs two innings of long relief in three of his appearances, yielding just two hits and two walks in those outings.
"It's been a great experience, especially during the middle of a pennant race," says Hart. "It's been a lot of fun. My objective is just to help these guys."
Ultimately, that's all that matters to Hart, who had never seen Wrigley Field in person until his major league debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Some debut it was, too. Thrown right to the wolves, Hart inherited a bases-loaded jam with no one out in the eighth inning and then walked in a run.
But he proceeded to rally and strike out pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney before getting Rafael Furcal to fly into an inning-ending 7-2 double play.
"It's nuts," Hart said of his impressions of Wrigley and its patrons. "It's a lot of fun and it's cool. My first trip to Wrigley was my first game. I'd compare it to a college football atmosphere. They get here super early, stay super late and they're loud. It's awesome and it's about everything you could expect.
"I've been to a lot of ballparks, but this is probably my favorite right now."
Sweetening the pot all the more is the award Hart took home on Wednesday. He was named Pitcher of the Year after finishing tied for both the most wins and most strikeouts (131) in the farm system this past season.
Hart had a 2.80 ERA from the beginning of June until his final start of the minor league season. His 3.99 overall ERA ranked fourth best among all starters in the Cubs' system.
Hart said Wednesday's award came as more of a surprise than the call-up.
"When I looked at my overall numbers, I didn't think they were that great," said Hart. "A 3.99 is not bad, but that's usually not something you look at and think, 'Man, that's a great ERA.' It was a big shock, but it's really cool for me.
"I'm happy and it's always cool when you get something like that because it's something you're in the running for with all of your peers."
In looking at his season in retrospect, Hart says a good part of his journey to Chicago was all about timing. Along the way, he would develop a cut-fastball to coincide with his sinking two-seamer and four-seam pitch. (Hart's self-titled out-pitch is his slider, and he mixes in a changeup to strengthen his secondary pitches.)
"It's all about getting hot at the right time and being somewhere and having the opportunity to get moved up," he said. "That's kind of what happened this year. I started off slow but I got it going at the right time. They ended up needing some pitchers in the big leagues and it ended up working out."
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