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Taking one for the team

Mike Mayers major league debut was a historically rough one, but there may be a glimmer of hope from another Cardinal pitcher.

Scott Kane/Getty Images

"I made it a point to commend him in front of everybody," the manager said. "He was in a tough situation. But he never once embarrassed himself or embarrassed the team. He's got special insides. He'll be fine."

"He's had a great season and that was a tough assignment he just walked into," the manager said. "It could have looked a little different, but hopefully he looks at it as a learning experience and he builds off it."

That second quote came from Mike Matheny after the ill-fated major league debut by Mike Mayers on Sunday night. The first came from Tony La Russa, after a similarly disastrous debut by Mike Busby in 1996.

Like Mayers, Busby's major league debut came about as somewhat of an emergency. The Cardinals hobbled to the end of spring training in '96 with four of their potential starters injured. There was some talk of promoting the team's top pitching prospect, Matt Morris, but the 21-year-old had yet to pitch above A-ball.

The strain on the Cardinals already thin staff was exacerbated when their 4th and 5th games of the season went 14 and 12 innings, respectively. Both of those games were against the World Champion Braves in Atlanta, and the Cardinals won both on the strength of 16 scoreless innings from their bullpen.

So coming into the third and final game of that series, La Russa handed the ball to Busby and told him the team would need to leave him in for at least five innings. Busby was a 14th-round pick, entering his 6th season of professional ball as he made his major league debut. Just a week before, he had been shellacked by the Cleveland Indians in his final spring training start, including an Albert Belle home run estimated well over 400 feet.

A walk to Jeff Blauser and a home run by Chipper Jones put Busby and the Cardinals down two after the first inning, and the Cardinals even got one of those runs back in the top of the 2nd. But it was in the bottom of the 2nd where the wheels really came off.

After a walk, a groundout and a hit batter, Busby made an error on an attempted sacrifice bunt to load the bases. Then he gave up a grand slam to Marquis Grissom. A single and a double would follow, and the Braves left that inning leading 7-1.

Over the next two innings, Busby would give up two more home runs and a triple. While La Russa planned to make the rookie throw five innings, he showed an iota of mercy by relieving him after the 4th, motivated no doubt by what must have been a sky-high pitch count. Busby's line for the day was: 4 IP, 9 hits, 4 walks and 13 runs allowed (8 earned).

And yet by Game Score, which assigns a single number to the value of a starting pitcher's outing, Mayers debut was actually slightly worse than Busby's - a Game Score of 1 vs. 2. They are actually the 2nd and 3rd worst debuts in major league history, by Game Score.

For both Mayers and Busby, a similar confluence of events gave them unexpected opportunity and set them up for potential disaster. The same pitching shortage that bumped them to the head of the line also meant that rather than easing the player gently into the big leagues and coming to rescue them then they faltered, the manager had to throw them to the wolves.

So what happened to Busby after his disastrous debut?

After a return to the minors and offseason shoulder surgery, Busby returned to the Cardinals rotation in September of 1997, as injuries again decimated the pitching staff. (He actually took the roster spot of Rick Honeycutt, who at age 43 had finally reached the end of the road.)

Busby made three starts that September and they were... not at all good. The second of the three was almost as rough as Busby's debut, as he allowed 7 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. In the Post-Dispatch the next morning, Rick Hummel wrote "The Cardinals, mercifully, were eliminated from the National League Central race Sunday." Busby finished the season with an 8.79 ERA.

Busby pitched for the Cardinals again in 1998 and 1999, making 41 appearances and two starts.

It wasn't the kind of career that kids dream about, but all told, Busby spent parts of four seasons as a big leaguer and 11 years in professional baseball at some level. In a sport where so few ever even make it to the biggest stage, that's got to be considered a success. And hopefully it's a small ray of hope for Mike Mayers.

As Will Leitch noted in a great column, it was grueling to watch Mayers start on Sunday night, and particularly the way ESPN kept cutting back for reaction shots from his family. I'll be honest, I'm not one who goes out of my way to form emotional bonds with the men who wear the baseball uniform I cheer for, but as a human being with empathy I couldn't help but have my heart go out to Mayers and his family.

As Leitch noted and I'm sure Mayers is aware, it's entirely possible that Sunday night will turn out to be the only major league appearance of his career. I certainly hope not. At just 24, and only a year off of thoracic outlet syndrome, there's reason to hope for more from Mayers. A player can come back and forge a career after a start that brutal. Mike Busby did.