Gonzales: The next 14 games will test younger Cubs

  • Cubs pitcher Keegan Thompson made his major league debut as a starter last May against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. He's now working out of the bullpen.

    Cubs pitcher Keegan Thompson made his major league debut as a starter last May against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. He's now working out of the bullpen. Associated Press

  • Keegan Thompson has improved his control and become a go-to pitcher out of the bullpen.

    Keegan Thompson has improved his control and become a go-to pitcher out of the bullpen. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/26/2022 12:46 PM

Young reliever Keegan Thompson has gained respect for more than just defending veteran catcher Willson Contreras by dotting Andrew McCutchen with a pitch two weeks ago.

Any concerns about Nico Hoerner's arm strength at shortstop were quelled this spring, and he overcame a 1-for-8 rut with an 8-for-12 performance in a weekend series against the Pirates.

 

Nick Madrigal's .213 batting average and .288 on-base percentage aren't ideal, but he has fulfilled the Cubs' projections with a 91.4 percent contact rate, according to FanGraphs.

And the likes of Alfonso Rivas, Justin Steele and Ethan Roberts have made an array of contributions despite their lack of experience.

These Cubs' youngsters begin a 14-game crash course against elite teams starting Tuesday night against the world champion Braves, followed by showdowns at Milwaukee, at home against the White Sox and Dodgers before concluding with a series at San Diego.

Based on the familiarity in their baseball lives, there's a comfort among this group as they enter their first extended challenge.

"It means a lot to play at this level with a lot of guys I've been around at the lower levels," said Hoerner, who includes Rivas in the group because he played against him in the Pacific-12 Conference and with him for Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League in 2017.

"Everyone has their own story getting to the big leagues, but seeing glimpses of it personally, it means more, for sure."

It will mean more to the Cubs if Roberts and Rivas make the most of their next opportunities, as major league rosters must be trimmed from 28 to 26 on May 2.

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Roberts, who was in the same 2018 draft class as Hoerner, hasn't pitched since Thursday but has walked five in five innings. The left-handed hitting Rivas, who can play left field and first base, was optioned to Triple-A Iowa despite going 2-for-4 to start the season, but is 4-for-7 since returning Friday after outfielder Clint Frazier underwent an appendectomy.

The Cubs are scheduled to face two left-handed starters in the next four games, but Rivas' pinch-hit double Sunday provides another late-inning option for manager David Ross.

The biggest weapon, however, is Thompson, who hasn't allowed a run in 13⅔ innings while posting a 9.659 WHIP.

Much has been documented about Thompson's improved diet habits and hot yoga. But the biggest improvement has been his control, as he's lowered his walk rate from 5.2 per nine innings to 2.

Ross' decision to summon Thompson in the sixth inning with a 4-2 deficit fueled instant criticism on social media.

But Ross' strategy was expansive. He believed Thompson could hold the Pirates scoreless and provide his teammates with a chance to overcome a deficit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thompson did his part with four scoreless innings. The offense, however, failed.

Nevertheless, Ross knew he could use Thompson for a season-long outings because Kyle Hendricks was starting the next game, and Hendricks responded with seven scoreless innings that protected nearly the entire bullpen.

"I can't overstate how well he's pitched, how good he's looked, and how valuable that arm has been for us," Ross said.

But Thompson was placed twice on the IL last season because of right shoulder inflammation. No Cubs starter except Hendricks has pitched at least six innings, so they must pitch deeper against a formidable group of teams.

That's an ominous task as they try to reverse a trend in which they've lost five of six, including three by one run.

President Jed Hoyer has kept the faith in his younger pitchers while veteran pitchers Alec Mills and Wade Miley could return within a month. Hoerner's play has lessened the rush for veteran Andrelton Simmons to return, although backup Jonathan Villar has committed two errors in each of his two starts at shortstop and has been charged with four miscues in 38 chances at short and third base.

"I feel like our pitching development is in a good place," Hoyer said last week. "We have some guys up here who can contribute, and we also have guys that are on the rise and have a chance to contribute this year or certainly next year."

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