If you were driving under Interstate 405 in Long Beach during the COVID-19 spring shutdown, you could’ve seen a Major League Baseball player throwing weighted balls against the side of a massive concrete pillar.
“I rode my bike there and played catch with a wall for six weeks,” Chase De Jong said. “Instead of sitting at home hoping that baseball would happen, I was out there grinding.”
De Jong, 26, was a second-round draft pick straight out of Wilson High School in 2012, but eight years later he was out of baseball. The 6’4” 230-pound right-handed pitcher rediscovered his strength and fastball under the freeway, and worked his way back onto a MLB roster this season.
That roster just happened to be the Houston Astros. De Jong was in the bullpen when they almost came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series.
“That was the coolest atmosphere I’ve ever been in and I wish fans were there because it would’ve been even more special,” De Jong said.
De Jong spent time in the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins organizations before being released after last season. He had pitched in MLB games for Seattle and Minnesota, but his only opportunity to pitch in 2020 was with the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters in Texas. With the minor leagues shut down, newly formed independent leagues became the only place for guys like De Jong to get back in The Show.
We talked to De Jong last week while he was driving home from Texas.
Question: How did you stay in shape during the pandemic while waiting for another opportunity to prove yourself?
Answer: I isolated myself. Thankfully (LBSU Athletic Director Andy Fee) was able to let me get into the Pyramid, so I was working out by myself from 9 to 11 a.m. every day. I was really pushing myself because I knew that my faith and my family and my support system would be able to put me back together, but I knew what was required of me to get back to the level I knew I could play at.
Q: Were you on a throwing program at that point?
A: I was able to work out with the Dirtbags. Coach (Eric Valenzuela) was awesome and let me get out there and work with guys. They really gave me an opportunity to come back.
Q: Was there ever a point when you needed to decide if you even wanted to try and come back to pitch in MLB again?
A: Those were conversations I was already having with myself at the end of 2019. It was bad year. I was up for the week with Minnesota, but I was really battling some demons mentally. Physically I was fine, but I just wasn’t a good pitcher in 2019. Ultimately I got released, went to Sugar Land and kind of found myself a little bit again, but didn’t really do great. I came home and had to sit down with my parents and my wife. We definitely had the conversation, “Okay, is it time to get a real job?” But I knew I still had game left, but I had put myself in a rough position.
Q: You didn’t even have a job offer when the pandemic shut everything down, so what did you do?
A: I built arm strength. I couldn’t find a throwing partner so I had one- and two-pound (plyometric weighted balls) and I threw them against the side of the 405 Freeway. I taught myself how to use my hips because I was able to have that time where nothing was happening. I kept telling myself, “I’m in the middle of writing one of the greatest comeback stories. I’m gonna do this.”
Q: Do you think you became a better pitcher during the pandemic?
A: It benefited me greatly. I throw hard now. Over eight years in the minor leagues I think my average fastball was like 89 MPH. This year I don’t think I threw a fastball under 92 MPH.
Q: When you went to pitch for Sugar Land in July, did the strength improvement translate into good performances on the mound?
A: I was dealing. In two games I struck out nine guys in four innings and then 10 guys in five innings. My breaking ball was nasty again. My fastball has really good life. Quite frankly, I would look back at the radar gun and it would say 92, 93, 94 MPH. I just kept thinking, “That’s not me. That gun is wrong.” Then all of a sudden the scouts were talking about me being consistently 93-94 MPH and I was like, “Dang.”
Q: Were you surprised you got attention from multiple MLB teams while in Sugar Land?
A: Not really. We were all playing there for an opportunity to get scouted, picked up and signed out of there because we all knew that (MLB teams) were going down with injuries and positive COVID tests. They needed bodies, and the minor leagues weren’t happening, so we were kind of the only show in the country and guys were getting picked up out of there quite a bit. I think like 40% of the guys had major league experience when we first showed up, so there was good competition.
Q: Where were you when you got the call from the Astros in early August?
A: We were in Sugar Land, which is 35 minutes outside of Houston. We agreed to terms at dinner time. I’m going to bed thinking I was going to the alternate site after a physical. They called me at 10:30 p.m. and said, “Your physical is at Houston Methodist tomorrow at 6:45 a.m. so don’t be late you’re on a 3 p.m. flight to Oakland and you’re joining the team on the taxi squad.” Credit to my wife because when we were packing things for the Sugar Land she brought my suit. She said, “You’re going to need this because I have that much faith in you that you’re going to get back.” Incredible.
Q: Houston purchased your contract about two weeks later while you were on the road in San Diego. How did that feel?
A: I was at a loss for words. I called (my wife Christina) and I called my Dad and was like, “I’m back.” It was the coolest feeling. A couple days later we were at home playing the Angels, I got called out of the bullpen. I threw my 2/3 of an inning, did well, and I remember sitting there on the bench that inning and just looked up and thought, “You did it. You busted your ass and grinded your way back. In a year of so much uncertainty… you just got back for parts of four consecutive years in the Major Leagues.”
Q: That’s incredible, even if it is with the Houston Astros. Obviously, Los Angeles Dodger fans here still hold a grudge after it was proven the Astros cheated during the 2017 World Series.
A: Believe me, I know. I really like this organization and they’re so good at developing pitching and helping you understand what your best tools are to go after guys… But, being from Long Beach, I got probably 15 texts that said, “Hey man, really pulling for you, always going to be a Chase De Jong fan… but it’s hard to root for the Astros.” I understand.
Q: There’s another connection as well because you made your MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2017 at Houston.
A: It was weird. When I walked into that clubhouse in Oakland I gave myself three days before I introduced myself to George Springer.
Q: Of course, because you gave up the game-winning home run to him in that game.
A: When we were back in Houston I was telling (pitcher Brooks Raley) that I debuted here and that I’m the first pitcher in Mariners history to get walked off in their debut. Springer got me in the Crawford Box. It was like 340 feet to left center, and of the 30 MLB ball parks it only gets out of one.
So we were coming in from batting practice that day and Brooks asked George, “Did you know you walked him off in his debut?” George kind of looked with that side-eye and said, “Yeah I knew, but I wasn’t going to talk about it.” It was funny. George said to me, “It’s the cheapest home run I’ve ever hit in my life.” We had a laugh about it.
Q: What was it like to be in the Astros bullpen during the ALCS?
A: Those were more important than any other game I’d ever been at. You knew, it was in the air, that something was on the line. When we went down 3-0 (to Tampa Bay) nobody in the clubhouse panicked. We won the next three games and that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I was just sitting in the bullpen waiting to cover my innings. Every other inning I was getting up and stretching.
Q: So mentally you were ready to pitch?
A: Every time that (bullpen) phone rang there were nerves, but it was all hands on deck because it was seven games in seven days. That’s why they activated me, because you needed arms. Every time the phone rang, I told myself, “You want this to be you. You want to go in there and do this.”
Q: The season is over and no one knows what the league will look like next year, so what now for you?
A: I’m going home to be an uncle. I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews in five or six months. I’m excited to spend time with the family. And then I’m going to be getting after it and getting ready for spring training.
Since the interview De Jong has been placed on waivers by the Astros, but he took it in stride.
“That’s baseball,” he said. “There’s still 25 other teams I haven’t played for yet.”