Cubs' Nick Burdi makes an improbable big league comeback

HOUSTON — Doubt crept into Nick Burdi's mind last August, as the end of the season drew near, and his recovery from his most recent arm surgery stalled.

“That was the point where I was like, ‘I don't know if this is going to happen again,'” Burdi told the Sun-Times.

Coming back from two Tommy John surgeries and surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome has been an uphill task. But last year Burdi underwent surgery to relieve the pressure a piece of scar tissue was putting on the ulnar nerve in his elbow, his fourth arm surgery in six years.

On Tuesday, Burdi made his first major league appearance since August 2020. It wasn't perfect. In the Cubs' 7-3 loss on Tuesday, he replaced Justin Steele as the starter in the seventh inning and gave up two walks, a double, a sacrifice fly, and an RBI single. But those innings he can also use as building blocks.

“We all want to go out there and punch it out,” he said. “And obviously, I want to go out there and give zero to these guys. I know that we are struggling, and I want to stay in that game. But I think overall, for me to get back to it, take the first one out, now it's like, well, we can move on.

The Cubs saw promise in a hard right-handed throw from Downers Grove, Illinois.

“I'm happy for him,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Monday after the Cubs selected Burdi from Triple-A Iowa. “That it would be a great story for him to come back and pitch well.”

Burdi began his professional career as a second round pick from the University of Louisville, drafted by the No. 1 Twins. 46 overall in 2014. But after Burdi missed most of the 2017 minor league season for his first Tommy John operation, the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 Draft and traded him to the Pirates for international signing bonus pool money.

“He's ready,” said Cubs starter Jameson Taillon, who overlapped with Burdi in Pittsburgh. “He worked really hard – maybe too hard. He's always in the gym, always after it. He's got electrical stuff. Once he settles in here and gets comfortable getting out of the big league bullpen again, I think he's got the back-end bullpen stuff.

Burdi made his major league debut with the Pirates the following year, but due to increased injuries he played 16 major league games over three seasons. Burdi underwent surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome in 2019 and his second Tommy John surgery the following year.

It's been a long road for Burdi, but a major silver lining for him and his wife Rebecca is the time he spends with his daughter. He was born in December 2020, a few months after his second Tommy John Burdi surgery. He removed the clamp just in time to hold it in place.

In spring last year, Burdi made progress towards a return. He threw a promising bullpen, at great pace. The elbow feels great.

“And I woke up the next day and couldn't bend my elbow,” she says.

He underwent surgery to remove what he described as “thumb-sized” scar tissue that had been over his nerves.

However, at the end of the setback, there was good news. While Burdi was in rehab in Rhode Island last December, his agent surprised him with the news that the Cubs would select him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

“And then suddenly like this big peak again,” he said. “And you ride that wave into spring training. And then I took it with me, that joy.