"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I'd be," said Atkins, added to the Cubs roster to provide a much-needed fresh arm in the bullpen. "Once I got out there, I felt pretty good. Pitching in Spring Training helped a lot, too."
The first batter Atkins faced was Houston's Carlos Lee, who reached on an error, but Geoff Blum popped up to catcher Koyie Hill and Hunter Pence grounded into an inning-ending double play. The Cubs won, 12-0, and Atkins could catch his breath.
"I was just thinking about throwing strikes," he said. "It's a little easier to throw when you have a little cushion like that. It helped me get my feet under me a little bit."
Was his heart racing?
"A little bit," he said.
The Cubs' bullpen has been overworked the last few days after a 13-inning game Monday and a short outing by starter Ryan Dempster on Tuesday. The team does not have a day off until Aug. 6. Rookie Randy Wells saved the day Wednesday with eight scoreless innings and picked up his seventh win in his last eight starts.
"We needed eight innings," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Our bullpen was pretty used up and we were able to rest it."
Jeff Stevens, who had pitched Monday and Tuesday, was optioned to Triple-A Iowa to make room for Atkins on the 25-man roster. Stevens returns to the Minor Leagues with a 2.84 ERA in five appearances with the big league team. He did not give up a run this season until Tuesday against Houston.
Atkins got the early wakeup call and was told to catch an 8 a.m. flight out of Omaha, Neb., to Chicago. He just grabbed his baseball gear and left his girlfriend to pack his things.
"I had a little trouble finding the airport," Atkins said. "I do need some coffee."
The Cubs' 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Atkins was 6-10 with a 6.92 ERA in 20 starts for Iowa. He's been a little inconsistent. On July 19 against Nashville, Atkins gave up three runs on five hits over six innings and struck out five. In his next start, July 24 against Albuquerque, he took the loss, serving up five runs on eight hits in three innings.
On June 30 against Round Rock, he took the loss but gave up one run on three hits over eight innings. How would he assess his season?
"It started out a little rough," Atkins said. "Lately I've been throwing the ball well and I just have to try to keep that going."
He did just fine Wednesday.
"I think it will all sink in a little later," Atkins said. "It's a little surreal right now."
Stevens made a good impression on Piniella, too. In his third outing with the Cubs on July 20 against Philadelphia, the right-hander entered the game in the fifth, and the first batter he had to face was Ryan Howard. Stevens struck him out.
"You have to come in and throw strikes," Stevens said. "It's nice to see it's somewhat the same game here as it was in Triple-A. They're big-time hitters, but all you can do is pitch your game. I can't change what I've done. I definitely knew [Howard] was in the box. He's a big man up there."
His first appearance was July 10 against St. Louis at Wrigley Field, and the right-hander admitted he was a little nervous then.
"You're sitting in the bullpen just wondering if you're going to pitch, and they say, 'Hey, you're in,' and you get going again and you get kind of nervous," he said. "But when you get out there it's almost like you forget where you are, you forget who you're throwing to. All you really see is the glove.
"I know it's a cliche, but it's really true -- when you get out there, it's just you and Koyie [Hill] and nobody else."
Atkins can definitely relate to that.