Pirates OF Canaan Smith-Njigba, C Jason Delay have unforgettable moments in MLB debuts

Canaan Smith-Njigba had prepared his whole life for his major league debut, so he wasn’t going to complain about spending nearly two games in the Pittsburgh Pirates dugout before getting in a game.

When he got the call to pinch hit for Yu Chang with two outs in the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, Smith-Njigba was ready.

“I’ve been waiting a very long time for this moment,” Smith-Njigba said. “When my name is called, I’m going to be out there and be ready to play and step into box and do what I’ve got to do to help the team win.”

Smith-Njigba doubled to left-center off Giovanny Gallegos for his first major league hit in his first at-bat, giving the Pirates a glimmer of hope in a 3-1 loss Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

“I stayed in my approach,” Smith-Njigba, 23, said. “I didn’t want to be the last out of the game, so I definitely wanted to do what I can to get the next guy up. I’m just happy he threw the fastball there and I hit it and my name’s in the books.”

Jason Delay also got his name in the books, starting at catcher in the first game of the split doubleheader in St. Louis.

Where Smith-Njigba was promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis after batting .277/.387/.408 with 15 doubles, three triples, one home run and 19 RBIs in 52 games, Delay had his contract selected from the taxi squad after joining the Pirates on their road trip.

A Pirates fourth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2017, Delay hadn’t played in 16 days. Even so, he drew a nine-pitch walk in his first major league plate appearance and reached second base on a wild pitch. Delay also flew out to left field and grounded into a double play. It was a long time coming for the 27-year-old catcher, who got emotional before the first pitch.

“It was insane. When I saw my family, as I was walking to the bullpen, I started tearing up,” Delay said. “Once I get out on the field, you realize it’s the same game. There’s certainly some changes. The pitching’s faster, the pitchers are better, the hitters are better, but it was something I’ll never forget.”

Another meaningful moment for Delay came when Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and first baseman Albert Pujols — a pair of players destined for Cooperstown — approached him.

“It was insane, Pujuols and Molina coming up to me and congratulating me on my debut,” Delay said. “That’s something I’ll never forget. I looked up to those guys my whole life. (Molina) just said congratulations. That was really it, but even something small like that means a lot to me.”

Delay had to deal with the mid-90s heat in St. Louis while catching eight innings behind the plate for JT Brubaker and Tyler Beede, a former Vanderbilt teammate. Despite joking in a pregame interview on AT&T SportsNet that he was willing to catch if it was 150 degress, Delay said he got so hot that he got light-headed.

“He did a nice job,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “He had some really tough blocks. I mean, Bru threw some nasty breaking balls that spiked in. He did a good job with the game planning.”

Where Delay was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis after the matinee — he stayed on the Pirates’ taxi squad for the trip — Smith-Njigba started in left field and batted fifth in the nightcap.

In his first plate appearance, Smith-Njigba was hit by a pitch by Miles Mikolas — who fell one out shy of throwing a no-hitter. Smith-Njigba grounded out to second in the next two at-bats.

AT&T SportsNet’s cameras captured his parents, brother and coaches from Rockwall-Heath (Texas) High School celebrating the milestone. His mother said that Smith-Njigba’s debut came five years and one day after he was drafted in the fourth round by the New York Yankees. Smith-Njigba was one of four players acquired by the Pirates from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade in January 2021.

“It’s a true testament to our family,” Smith-Njigba said. “I’m just excited. I’m just happy that we get to share this moment. We’re all here. I’m happy that everyone came and got here safely and got to see me get my first big-league hit. It’s just amazing. I’m just very happy to be here, honestly. … That wasn’t just my hit. That’s everyone’s hit that’s on my side.”

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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