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Chicago Cubs call up former first-round pick

TORONTO — Six hours before Monday’s series opener at the Rogers Centre, Brendon Little arrived for his first day as a major-leaguer.

He changed into his Chicago Cubs gear, popped on his headphones and trekked to the visitors bullpen in right field. Little sat in his new in-game home for the next three days and took in the empty triple-deck domed stadium. And then he walked out of the bullpen gate a couple of times to simulate the first time he is called in by manager David Ross.

“I looked around then,” Little explained, “so I don’t have to when I’m going in the game. Just want to stay focused.”

Triple-A Iowa pitching coach Ron Villone called Little into manager Marty Pevey’s office after Saturday’s game. Little was handed a sheet of paper with about 15 do’s and don’ts for a first-time big league.

The Cubs added the 26-year-old left-hander to their roster Monday as a replacement player for right-hander Adrian Sampson, who could not travel to Toronto because of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Little made his debut in Tuesday’s 5-3 loss, entering in the sixth with the Cubs leading 2-1. After hitting Bo Bichette and allowing an infield single by Matt Chapman, Little gave up a three-run homer to Teoscar Hernández. He retired two before walking a batter and getting pulled.

“Every year it seems like I’ve started on the injured list, so that’s been a grind,” Little said. “And I’ve changed a lot as a pitcher over the years, from four-seam up in the zone guy to now almost exclusively sinkers.

“So just to know that all the changes I’ve made over the years have been panning out and are going to continue to play at the next level, it’s a little bit of validation for everything that’s been happening.”

Little’s journey to the majors was not the smooth path of some first-round picks experience. The No. 27 selection in 2017, he started during his first two seasons in the organization before being converted to a reliever in 2021.

His opportunity to showcase his stuff last year in the Arizona Fall League ended during his first outing when he experienced soreness, which initially bothered him on a breaking ball and then later with a sinker. Aside from forearm tightness earlier in the season, an issue resolved with anti-inflammatory medicine, Little’s elbow had not bothered him.

Little feared he suffered an ulnar collateral ligament injury during the AFL. He felt relieved when initial tests indicated the ligament was fine.

But the diagnosis, a stress fracture in his left elbow, meant Little wasn’t able to resume throwing until January. The downtime allowed him to take a step back and reassess what was — or wasn’t — working.

Little admitted “for better or worse” he is known for tinkering too much with his stuff. So being open to new ideas and trusting in the organization and coaches at the next level will be part of his process.

Little’s adjustments and big-league debut against the Blue Jays will come with added scrutiny. He is eligible to be selected in December’s Rule 5 draft. Should the Cubs want to ensure he remains in the organization, they must put him on the 40-man roster to avoid a team potentially taking him.

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As a replacement player, little did not need to be added to the 40-man roster for his call-up this week.

“The guys who have success are the ones that can separate that and can say, ‘I’ll control what I can control, all the other stuff takes care of itself,'” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “He’s also had enough of a track record of being a high draft pick and the guy who’s had kind of a spotlight on him, I would say, most of his career. To be able to control that and stay true to himself is a testament to who he is, and I think it’s who he’ll be going forward.”

Little committed to a sinker-breaking ball mix that has made him more effective. His breaking pitch — considered a power curveball with similar characteristics to Justin Steele’s breaking ball — plays off his sinker well. Pounding the strike zone with both pitches has helped limit damage.

“Usually there’s guys where it’s like, OK, to a right-handed hitter you want to have a four-seam or curveball, to lefties a sinker-slider, but his have unique profiles of each,” Hottovy said. “You feel like they can play to any hitter, and as long as he’s over the plate, it’s going to be pretty successful.”

Little plotted a career game plan after his elbow injury. His approach and pitch usage has led him to the Cubs.

“Everything just has a lot more intention behind it rather than, like, ‘Hey, having a slider would be cool,’ or, ‘This would be cool to throw,’” Little said.

“Now it’s like, OK, let’s make sure that this is not only the right decision, but it’s going to play to both hitters, both sides of the plate and everything. So it’s definitely put a lot more focus on my career.”

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