For Zak Hermans ‘13 the dream of donning a Major League Baseball jersey, hearing his name crisply through sound system and stepping onto the mound in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans has been a longstanding aspiration. Like most little leaguers, the image of their name in lights with their cleats laced up and glove in hand is very common, but for a majority that dream fades into childhood memories and other realities come to the forefront.
Hermans never let that goal fade as he navigated through adolescence and into high school, but was unsure if he could actually accomplish his childhood aspiration. After struggling during stints on the varsity team as a sophomore at Coppell High School in Texas, he really came into his own the following year. A spectacular performance proved to be the eye opener for the right-handed pitcher – that his dream of playing at the next level could actually come to fruition.
“My first district start my junior year I came out and threw a no-hitter kind of out of nowhere,” he said. “That built my confidence and [I thought] I can really be successful at this level. It was my junior year and it also [made me think] I could really play college baseball and get recruited, because I hadn’t really heard from schools at that point.”
His journey took him to Princeton, where from 2010-13 he served as one of the dominant pitchers in the Ivy League.
“When I was recruited to Princeton Coach [Scott Bradley] told me specifically I wasn’t going to be giving up on any baseball dreams. The draft is always something in the back of every kid’s mind and you hope that one day you can be drafted. It is never a guarantee or anything, but he told me if I came to Princeton and continued to develop and became a really good pitcher that option would still be there,” he recounted.
Hermans’ big league dreams never faded, but didn’t take precedence over his task at hand.
“While I was [at Princeton] it wasn’t like I was working towards the draft, [I] was working to be the best pitcher I could be and be the best player I could be to help the team win,” said Hermans.
And develop he did, but it wasn’t without early struggles.
“My freshman year was a big learning curve. I will never forget my first college start, it was against North Carolina on the spring break trip and I gave up eight runs in the first inning and back-to-back home runs off the jumbotron,” Hermans’ detailed of his starting debut. “It definitely was a rough experience for my first start and caused a lot of self-doubt.”
After earning consecutive district MVP honors and an All-State First Team selection as a prep, Hermans came to the collegiate ranks riding highs of success and dominance. While for some a debut like that could have been enough to derail self-confidence and create an opening for an early exit, with the ever-present guidance of Bradley, Hermans’ found a way to navigate out of that place of uncertainty.
“Coach took me aside after that game and said some of his most successful pitchers had that same experience their freshman year … He helped me with a few mechanical things I needed to work through so when I got to conference play I got a little more on a roll and more confidence,” he remembered.
Indeed things picked up for Hermans before the year concluded, as he reminisced about his first career Ivy League game versus Dartmouth on Apr. 4, 2010 at Clarke Field. A game that reignited that feeling he had as a junior – that he could continue to compete at the next level starting as a collegian.
“I had an ERA over 10 and I came out and pitched that game versus Dartmouth, the defending conference champions, and put up six scoreless innings versus Kyle Hendricks, a guy who is actually in the Cubs’ system playing AA for them. I pitched through the sixth, we closed out the seventh and we won that game 2-0,” he heartily explained.
He had come into the game 0-2 in four appearances still uneasy, but his Ivy debut served as a reminder for Hermans that he was meant to be there and was capable of finding success at the Division I level. Hermans finished with six strikeouts in 22 batters faced and scattered four hits.
From that point forward the righty put together stellar outings season-in and season-out, collecting 18 career victories and a 3.77 ERA over 236.1 innings. He served as a mainstay on the mound for the Tigers tallying 10 complete games in his 38 appearances, 195 strikeouts and a 1.32 WHIP.
While the personal achievements and accolades, like his 2012 Ivy League Pitcher of the Year award and being a two-time All-Ivy selection are assuredly highlights, he enthusiastically recounts winning the conference championship in 2011 as the foremost memory of his Tiger career.
“A highlight for sure was winning the conference championship my sophomore year. When we got that last out in game three, stormed the field and lifted the trophy up in the air is by far my favorite memory of my four years.”
Hoisting the Ivy League championship trophy was only part of it, as the Texas native was able to go his home state and face the University of Texas in the NCAA tournament regionals.
The following year Hermans and the Tigers looked to make a return trip to NCAAs and capture consecutive Ivy League titles. While they stayed in contention through the final weekend of the year, they fell one game short of advancing to the Ivy League Championship Series.
During the make it or break it regular season finale four-game series versus Cornell, Hermans put on a showcase.
“Another game I’ll never forget was junior year versus Cornell at the end of the season because of the circumstances,” he said. “We had to win all four games that weekend in order to take first place [but] ended up coming just short in that fourth game and lost in extra innings.”
With every game being must-win, the Tigers opened the series with a 13-3 victory. Hermans took over in game two in a hostile Ithaca afternoon.
“It was like 34 degrees outside with snow flurries coming down ... I ended up pitching a complete game shutout, we won 1-0 and I had 14 strikeouts. It probably was the best game I ever pitched in my life,” commented a spirited Hermans.
His 14 strikeouts stand tied for third-highest in a single game in program history. He also was the first Tiger since Richard Emery ’55 struck out 14 versus Army on May 6, 1955.
As a senior, Hermans had his best year on the mound, despite posting his first losing record at 3-4. Lack of run support and falling short in close games didn’t circumvent others taking notice of Hermans’ innate abilities. He posted a 2.40 ERA over 56.1 innings. In nine starts, he pitched six complete games and a shutout, while striking out 55 and holding opposing batters to a .214 average.
Princeton’s season concluded with a series split versus Cornell on Apr. 28, leaving Hermans to wrap up his final classes, take finals, graduate and wait until the MLB First-Year Draft to see what path he’d be taking.
Would all the hours, days, months and years of preparation, adjustments, focus and drive lead up to a contract or would he being hanging up his glove for good?
“It was a nerve wracking time,” he said. “I knew my season was done and I felt good about how I performed this past spring in terms of my career at Princeton. There was not much for me to do to help my draft stock, but sit and wait to see if someone would call me. I went to a couple pre-draft workouts as well, but it was a lot of waiting.”
On June 30, Hermans was picked by the Chicago Cubs as the 888th pick in the 30th round. His lifelong dream was really materializing.
Since there was no security he would be drafted an aware Hermans ensured he had a backup plan in case his professional attire didn’t require a ball cap, jersey and cleats.
“I definitely had a backup plan [since] there is so much uncertainty [if] I didn’t perform well in the spring or I got hurt. I was accepted to Teach for America and I was going to teach middle school math in the Kansas City region; I had that job offer since the end of April my junior year,” he said.
Hermans didn’t need his contingency plan, as he signed his contract the day after being drafted and immediately was sent to the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz.
“The first couple days were going through all sorts of physicals that we had to pass before they would sign us for real … I was then cleared to throw, workout and practice with the team,” he recalled.
Hermans will now call Mesa home, after being assigned to the Cubs’ Rookie Ball team there.
“I got the chance to talk to Coach Bradley and he said he was really happy for me to get this opportunity. [He] said to make sure I stay disciplined, stick with it, handle myself like a professional and make the most of the opportunity because not a lot of people get it. It is a lot of fun [and] I couldn’t be any happier. I get to say my first job out of college I am playing professional baseball – there’s definitely nothing to complain about,” said Hermans.
For now his job with Teach for America is deferred until 2014 and he’s hoping he’ll be suiting up with the Cubs for the foreseeable future. He is cautiously optimistic, but eager to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime chance he has in front of himself.
He made his professional debut in the Arizona League starting versus the Angels on July 4 and went in as a reliever on July 7 versus the Mariners. In 2.0 combined innings of work, Hermans has a 0.00 ERA and three strikeouts.
“I'm going to do whatever it is they ask of me to be able to stick with the organization and hopefully move up the ladder. I know it’s a long process but I feel like if I can continue to develop and work on the things they want me to that I can hopefully make it to the Majors one day. There’s no timetable or guarantee on anything, but I have to do everything I can to make the most of the opportunity,” concluded Hermans.
By: Diana Chamorro