Afterwards, the emotion was pure. Hunter Jones had some mementos in his locker after he recorded a scoreless ninth inning – a pair of authenticated balls for the first and third outs of the inning, as well as an authenticated lineup – but he also had something more.
No matter what happens going forward, Jones can now say after recording the final three outs of the Red Sox’ 12-1 blowout of the Orioles that he is a major leaguer. The significance for a left-handed pitcher whose career began in complete obscurity is undeniable.
“That’s what I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” said Jones. “As far as anyone is concerned, I shouldn’t be here.”
When Red Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod first saw Jones, it was in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League. Even though the pitcher had been eligible for the draft that year, the Sox didn't have a scouting report on him. They were not alone.
Jones had broken his ulna as a sophomore at Florida State and required an eight-inch metal rod to be inserted from his ulna through his forearm. His pitching future was in question.
Doctors told the pitcher that he might never throw above 85 mph after the surgery. It took him more than a year to feel like he was able to regain his stuff following the surgery.
Jones returned to the mound at FSU for 18 games as a junior, going 4-5 with a 5.10 ERA. But he was eager to get to the Cape as a means of showcasing himself. At the time, Jones hoped to leave behind a college career that had been riddled with disappointment and a feeling that his career had been jeopardized by his team’s failure to properly diagnose and treat his injury.
McLeod saw Jones pitch for Orleans that summer. The man in charge of the Red Sox draft was impressed. Jones was throwing 90-91 mph with a downhill plane that was producing swings and misses. But McLeod was also thrown by the fact that Jones was not listed on the Orleans roster.
“I actually thought he was another guy,” McLeod once recalled. “I called the office and said, 'Hey—I saw this left-hander last night, but it doesn't match up with what they have on the roster.' We found out he was eligible (to sign). I said, 'We've got to sign this guy.'”
Days later, the Sox did just that. The team signed Jones for $35,000, money roughly in line with a bonus for a seventh-round draft pick.
Jones made a steady move up the ladder in the Sox system. The left-hander recorded ERAs of 3.34 or lower at every rung, demonstrating an attacking mentality that produced a strikeout an inning and low walk totals in the minors.
His fastball has always been his chief weapon. Jones has gone spent his minor-league career searching for a secondary offering, exploring changeups and splitters but now settling on a slider.
His steady progress was rewarded with an invitation in January 2008 to the Red Sox Rookie Development Program, and his proximity to the majors was re-affirmed over this past winter when Jones was added to the 40-man roster. That put him in position for a call-up when Daisuke Matsuzaka’s trip to the disabled list left the Sox in desperate and immediate need of a reliever.
Jones undertook a unique and indirect cross-country trip to join the Red Sox, the zig-zagging journey serving, in some ways, as a metaphor for his career path.
He arrived in Oakland shortly after the conclusion of Tim Wakefield’s complete-game on Wednesday. Though promised a steak on the flight home for his efforts, Jones was exhausted by the journey, and slept soundly for almost all of the flight.
Back in Boston, where his mother had flown into town in hopes of seeing Jones’ debut, the pitcher waited. He warmed up twice in the bullpen on Friday, when it appeared that Sox starter Brad Penny might be knocked out in the early innings of a potential blowout loss to the Orioles.
“I’m almost glad I didn’t get in that day. It was a battle of trying to breathe correctly,” said Jones. “I felt like I was throwing 100.”
And so Jones kept waiting, even telling Red Sox starter Justin Masterson—a teammate at several minor-league levels—before Monday’s Marathon Day start that he didn’t foresee himself getting into the contest.
“We were kind of joking about it. In the minor leagues, a lot of times I’d pitch and he’d come in after me. We were joking and he said, ‘Man, I don’t think I’ll be coming in after you,’” said Masterson. “I said, ‘Maybe we’ll score enough to get you in there.’”
That is precisely what happened. The Sox lineup erupted, a conga line crossing the plate over the final innings of Monday’s game. And so, with the contest well in hand, Jones warmed in the bottom of the eighth and prepared to make his first trip to a major-league mound.
The first batter Jones faced was Orioles left fielder Luke Scott. He worked to control the adrenaline of the situation.
“Before I went out there, a couple people told me that the first time I’d get out there, I’d look up and get really nervous, just seeing how many people there are. So the whole time, I said, ‘I’m not looking up,’” said Jones. “I don’t want to try to throw too hard and I also don’t want to baby it in there. I want to go nice and smooth and keep the ball down.”
That he did. Jones’ first pitch as a major leaguer was an 89 mph fastball. Scott grounded it to second baseman Dustin Pedroia for an out that was in one sense routine, but that was in another sense life-changing.
“I knew Pedroia was over there, so I just chalked it up as an out,” said Jones. “(When the ball was hit), I said, ‘Wow, this is really happening—this is going to be an out. That’s amazing, I threw one pitch and got an out.’ … Then, after the first out, I looked up and said, ‘Holy cow—there are a lot of people here.’”
Still, Jones was able to relax with the first out in hand. His major-league baseball career was officially underway. He got another ground-out from Gregg Zaun and, after an error on what should have been an inning-ending groundout by Robert Andino, Jones finished the inning by getting Felix Pie on a lazy fly to left.
And so, Jones became a major leaguer, with the mementoes to prove it. A title that once seemed like it might prove impossible to achieve can never be taken from him.
“I’ve never been this happy,” said Jones, “in my life.”