Undrafted to the big leagues, Tigers make Jason Foley's dream come true
Chicago — Really? More COVID forms to fill out?
Jason Foley, the hard-throwing right-handed reliever, shrugged and dragged himself into the Toledo Mud Hens clubhouse as he was asked to do Saturday afternoon, thinking to himself, when will these protocols ever end?
“Incredible moment,” Foley said. “When they told me they needed me to sign some COVID documents, I obviously believed it. But then they all just kind of started getting on me and stuff, giving me a hard time. Then eventually they broke the news.”
Foley, at age 25, after missing two of the last three seasons, was going to the big leagues. The Tigers purchased his contract from Triple-A Toledo on Sunday and there he was, in uniform, taking pictures at Guaranteed Rate Field before the game with his former college teammate Zack Short.
“Pretty emotional,” he said. “I worked my butt off to get here.”
Short was sent down to Toledo Saturday night, but manager AJ Hinch let him stay with the club to be part of Foley's big-league debut.
"AJ thankfully let him stay to watch my debut," said Foley, who hit two batters in his debut but pitched a scoreless inning. "That was super awesome. He was on the field with me taking pictures and soaking up the moment with me."
What a journey. Foley went undrafted, despite showing upper-90s velocity at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
“I’ve said this 100 times — this dude wasn’t drafted?” former West Michigan Whitecaps manager Mike Rabelo said during an interview with The News in 2020. “Talking with amateur scouts, I’ve asked every one of them: How wasn’t he drafted?
“He’s had velo from the get-go: 97 to 99 every night, and at our place a couple of nights ago he hit 101.”
The Tigers signed him off the sandlots in Long Island during the summer of 2016. But his quick ascent was halted by Tommy John surgery, which cost him the 2018 season.
The pandemic cost him the 2020 season (he pitched at the Tigers’ alternate site) and then COVID-19 cost him three important weeks this spring.
“The Tommy John was the toughest (obstacle),” he said. “It was tough because I’d been throwing really well prior to it and had a lot of confidence and good momentum going forward.
“That was a major setback physically, for sure, and mentally as well knowing I wouldn’t be able to play for upwards of a year and miss a whole season.”
But he’s come all the way through that and emerged as more complete pitcher with a four-pitch arsenal.
“I’ve been throwing a lot of two-seamers, which has given me a whole new weapon to get outs,” he said. “I’ve developed a lot with the change-up and slider, too. Those have been great assets to help get guys out, as well, when they are sitting on a fastball. It’s been good.”
He’s had 10 strikeouts in 10 innings at Triple-A Toledo and over four minor league seasons, he’s carried a 9.3 strikeouts per nine and 3.2 walks per nine profile.
“He opened some eyes in spring training,” Hinch said. “He has a good arm, a moving fastball and right-handed hitters really don’t hit him hard at all. He can fill up the strike zone with 95-100 mph fastballs and he’s got a little slider.
“Once he got to Triple-A, he established himself as a guy who was going to factor in here at some point this season.”
With Michael Fulmer going on the injured list, and with the bullpen being taxed in recent games, the time was now. The Tigers designated outfielder JaCoby Jones for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Foley.
“This has always been the dream,” Foley said. “Whatever obstacles get put in front of you, you’ve got to go through them. It was a tough battle, but I never gave up. I just kept working hard and it’s paid off.”
He got the call in the sixth inning Sunday with the Tigers trailing 3-0.
"The adrenalin was super high," he said. "I was surprisingly calm through the whole game, but once that call came, definitely the nerves spiked and the adrenalin spiked a bunch."
It started a little wobbly when he hit a pair of Adams — Eaton and Engel — sandwiched around a fielder's choice ground out.
"Nerves played a factor there," he said. "Usually I'm not one to hit many batters. I like to attribute that to nerves. But hopefully I won't have any more of those down the road."
But he escaped the inning by getting Nick Madrigal to line out to right and the ever dangerous Tim Anderson to ground out on a 99-mph two-seamer.
"I am just happy to get out of it with a zero," he said. "At the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Foley isn’t only bringing a power arm to the Tigers bullpen. He’s also bringing a pretty solid mustache game. He looks like the reincarnation of late Tigers first baseman Dave Bergman — certainly ready to give Jake Rogers a run for best ‘stache in the room.
“Oh yeah,” Foley said. “That’s been a battle.”