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Nine years after being selected as the number one pick in the MLB Draft, Mark Appel finally made his major league debut.
Four days after being promoted from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to the Philadelphia Phillies, Appel took the mound on Wednesday, pitching a scoreless ninth inning in a 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.
"It's pretty surreal," Appel said. "I was trying to hold back the tears. It was emotional. It was special."
The right-hander, who turns 31 on July 15, became the oldest top overall pick to make his major league debut when he stepped foot on the rubber to face Marcell Ozuna at Citizens Bank Park.
He got Ozuna to line out to first baseman Rhys Hoskins on his first pitch for his first out.
"Having perspective and remembering even just two, three years ago," Appel said. "Even if I was just trying to come back, it's never been a straight line for me.
"Even in that whole process, I was lost. I felt like there were times when I was hopeless, that this dream would never happen. So yeah, I was choking back tears."
A native of suburban Houston, Appel was selected first overall by the Astros in the 2013 draft and spent three years in the Astros system before being traded to the Phillies in a multi-player deal in December 2015.
He struggled on the mound and battled through injuries in the minors before announcing in early 2018 that he was retiring, saying he was at peace with the decision to step away.
Three years later, Appel returned to the Phillies organisation but again scuffled at Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2021, posting a 6.06 ERA in 23 appearances – 15 starts.
He came out again this past spring and this time excelled – as a full-time reliever. In 19 appearances out of the bullpen for the Iron Pigs, Appel went 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA and 24 strikeouts over 28 innings.
"This whole year has been so special for me," Appel said. "I was coming in, trying to figure out: where do I fit? What's my role going to be?
"The fact I got to go to Lehigh and learn how to be a reliever and have some success, that was fuel to my fire. I didn't need a call-up for it to be a successful year.
"In that sense, this is all just extra. I'm just really thankful for it. And I'm glad that I'm able to go out and do my best and get to face the world champions from last year. It's pretty surreal."
The second batter Appel faced, William Contreras, singled to centre, but on the next batter, Appel notched his first major league strikeout on a 97 mph fastball to Aam Duvall.
After umpire Quinn Wolcott called strike three, catcher J.T. Realmuto tossed the ball to the Phillies dugout for Appel to keep as a memento of his first major league strikeout.
The inning ended one batter later when Appel got Phil Gosselin to hit into a fielder's choice – a grounder to shortstop Didi Gregorius, who tossed it to Bryson Scott.
Appel threw 10 pitches in all – six for strikes – and when he reached the Phillies dugout upon the completion of the inning, he was congratulated by interim manager Rob Thompson and his team-mates.
"It almost felt like I was being brought into this fraternity of Major League Baseball players," Appel said.